On 12 February 2018, Jo Johnson MP, then Minister for Rail, challenged the rail industry to remove all diesel-only trains from the network by 2040 and to provide a vision for how it will decarbonise.

I chair the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, which was set up to answer the challenge. On 31 January 2019, we published our initial report, outlining a credible set of technical options to achieve this goal.

Later in the year, we will provide a final report, including an economic appraisal and a route map for delivery of the taskforce’s recommendations.

Our task has been to consider what technologies are available and under development that will enable the industry to remove diesel-only trains from the network by 2040 and provide a vision for how to decarbonise the GB railway so that it is the world’s leading low carbon railway by this date. We have split our work into three areas: traction, property and infrastructure.

We have confirmed that the railway remains a very low carbon form of transport for both passengers and freight. It is among the lowest carbon modes of transport, particularly for heavily used commuter passenger journeys and for freight.

The industry uses its two principal traction modes, electricity and diesel, very efficiently. It continues to innovate both on how to improve these as well as on how to introduce new and improved technology. The industry’s efficient use of existing traction modes sets a high hurdle for other technologies to pass in order to be established as low-cost, lower carbon alternatives. Nevertheless, we were excited to discover the scope and amount of innovation under way, both from large, well established industry players as well as from smaller businesses and in academic partnerships. Examples of this ongoing innovation are given in a series of case studies which showcase a pipeline of ideas, from those being trialled as well as where new ideas are at various stages of development.

Where solutions to some parts of the challenge are not immediately apparent, there is strong commitment to encourage and fund further research and development leading towards demonstrator projects and trials. We have been reassured that the spirit of innovation in the rail industry is in good health. Accordingly, the rail industry has welcomed the challenge to continue to innovate towards a low carbon future.

The greatest challenge is on traction. There are some types of journeys where there are real possibilities for the introduction of new technology such as hydrogen fuel cells, on-board and lineside battery charging. Other journeys, such as high-speed intercity services and freight, have journey characteristics which demand very high energy and power delivery requirements, high acceleration and long periods between refuelling.

Freight train on track

Our research has shown that there are no suitable alternatives to electric and diesel traction available for these journey types within the timescales to 2040. Where no alternatives exist for certain journey types, we recommend putting in place transitional arrangements that may, for example, life-extend existing vehicles while the industry, academia and government work together to define, fund and implement innovation programmes in these key areas. An ongoing challenge will be to keep under review the most cost-effective decarbonisation solutions, both as technology develops and as cost and practical implications for the best whole-system solution evolve.

We recommend that the core of the decarbonisation strategy should be to maximise the use of the existing electrified network and we propose a hierarchy of options to achieve this.

Trains should run using the electrified network whenever this is possible. The electrified network should then be used to provide charging for on-board batteries to bridge electrification gaps on routes where this is technically feasible.

Other traction modes, such as hydrogen, bi-mode and hybrid trains should be actively encouraged as the best low-carbon options where extension of the electrified network is not feasible or will not be the most cost- and carbon-effective whole system solution.

We recommend that further research and development on new technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells and lineside charging, should be supported and incentivised for key journey types and network areas, where these show good potential to deliver more cost effective and lower carbon outcomes.

There are significant levels of support via RSSB R&D funding, Innovate UK, academic partnerships and other channels for innovation projects. We are seeing increased levels of interest in projects that support decarbonisation. We see there will be great benefit in encouraging further cooperation and collaboration between industry, academia and government in this critical area. We propose that the more likely options should be benchmarked in cost and carbon terms against the use of the existing electrified network and diesel.

While we have made a thorough review of viable and potentially viable options by 2040, we recognise that the lowest cost and lowest carbon impact whole system solution may identify some additional electrification. The need to look at this possibility further has been recognised by the Government.

On 28 June 2018 the Transport Select Committee inquiry into rail infrastructure investment found that the Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail “should engage with the Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) Electrification Cost Challenge initiative, and together produce a report on cost effective electrification within 12 months”. On 19 September 2018 the Government responded that it “will continue to engage with the industry and RIA on initiatives that could reduce the cost of enhancing the railway and improve the outcomes for its users. We will work with RIA to produce a report as recommended...”

We would advocate that this would benefit from an explicit assessment of the carbon impact of electrification when compared with any other feasible traction options.

There are significant opportunities in both property, comprised primarily of stations and depots, and in infrastructure to achieve carbon reductions at a reasonable cost.

For stations and depots, this would be achieved primarily through putting in place the appropriate requirements and structures to decarbonise direct energy use for lighting and heating. Driving this change, particularly where payback periods stretch beyond franchise terms, will require that we make better use of residual asset value mechanisms, franchise asset transfers and other tools for investments that extend beyond the lifetime of the franchise. We also recommend that the application of BREEAM, a world-leading sustainable assessment method, be mandated for all new station and depot developments and for major refurbishments to minimise lifecycle carbon.

For infrastructure, most assets have long lifecycles and are heavily controlled for safety, performance and customer satisfaction purposes, so opportunities for early carbon reductions are limited. However, we see that there is a real opportunity to be innovative in replacing lineside diesel generators and emergency generators with battery storage and that this should be researched as a priority.

The Network Rail road fleet is changing from an owned fleet to a leased fleet and supporting commitments to achieve zero tailpipe emissions from vans in cities by 2028. There are opportunities here for the company to drive innovation in fleet decarbonisation. We recommend that Network Rail meet pending government targets for introducing low emission cars into its fleet. We also recommend that they work with the Transport Systems Catapult and other potential innovation partners to leverage innovation within their fleet.

The need for a clear, consistent and predictable policy approach focused on decarbonisation was one of the most regularly repeated comments we received in our industry consultation.

We recommend that the industry and DfT work together to review where policy may be developed to incorporate the need for decarbonisation in both capital and operational aspects. We explain that this policy approach will have to be aligned with appropriate incentives, including research and innovation co-funding, where the market size in rail is not big enough to spread the cost of innovation sufficiently to make improvements commercially viable. We set out why it will also need to be supported by consistent, reliable and robust carbon performance data collection, analysis and reporting back into the industry.

Rail has a rightful reputation as a low carbon transport mode. While this is clear at a macro level from comparative statistics published by DfT and Office of Rail and Road (ORR) there has been relatively little pressure at the micro level to focus operational management, both within and outside franchise agreements, on a rigorous carbon management programme. The industry and DfT will need to make significant improvements. This will have to be at a level of granularity that allows the industry to compare good and bad performance across its operations and take action accordingly.

In our final report, we will address in more detail the need for the rail industry to transfer new technology from other sectors, most notably the automotive sector to drive cost effective innovation. We will consider whether the rail industry will be a large enough market to fund and support the rollout of, say, a hydrogen infrastructure or a battery charging infrastructure, or whether it will have to work in tandem with other sectors.

Our final report will also set out a series of stretching aspirations for the industry to aim to achieve by 2040, given the appropriate policy framework and support. The economic appraisal and route map that we will undertake for the final report will inform how the government and the industry, working together, will be able to achieve these aspirations.

We have been privileged to be invited as a Task Force to shape an industry response to this challenging aspiration, and have found great enthusiasm within the industry to supporting innovative and enduring solutions.

I encourage you to read the full report and look out for the further work that we will be publishing later in the year.