Electrification is an investment in a sustainable future

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A rolling programme for electrification is vital to maximize the potential of rail in Britain’s low-carbon transport system.

I’m delighted to join more than 15 other organisations in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps to call for more rail electrification. 

A new report published by the Railway Industry Association (RIA) has shown that we need electrification to reduce carbon emissions. 

The need for this is brought into even sharper focus this week by the announcement of more ambitious – arguably world-leading—climate policy. The Government has set a new target, to cut carbon emissions by 78% of 1990 levels by 2035. This is on top of the legally binding commitment to be net carbon zero by 2050. 

It’s vital to mitigate the impact of increased heating across the globe caused by too much carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. The effects will become more devastating for more people as time goes on, with direct impacts on climate, geography, agriculture and whole ecosystems. There will also be indirect impacts on jobs, education, opportunities, and ways of life as we know them as people and communities will need to literally weather the storm. 

So, it is vital that effort is put in from all quarters into decarbonisation, and for transport that must surely mean investing in greener, lower carbon options like rail. 

But rail cannot afford to assume that its role is guaranteed. 

Diesel was possibly an environmental saviour when it replaced steam in the 1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan, but it was only supposed to be a stop-gap before electrification of all major routes. If rail is going to be part of a future sustainable transport system, then we need to step up the pace of electrification. 

There are significant advantages of adopting a ‘rolling programme’, but to cut a long story short this means we get to electrify faster and cheaper. The government already adopts a ‘rolling programme’ for road improvements or at the very least, appears to invest continuously and systematically in roads, even if this is questionable in carbon terms. So why do we not have the same level of commitment and investment in rail electrification? 

We are supporting research into other alternatives to diesel, such as hydrogen and batteries. These technologies will play a role in the future, and we need more research and development to establish that role. There are strong opinions on what the prospects for these alternatives may or may not be! But wherever you are in that debate, there is no question that we need more electrification. As shown in the Final Report for the Minister for Rail by the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce in July 2019, overhead line electrification is the only proven ready-to-use alternative to diesel that can be used effectively for both passenger and freight, and for higher speeds. 

At RSSB we will work closely with our partners across the rail industry and government to address such questions together. It’s easy to be passionate and rhetorical about the need for electrification, but we do need a practical plan so that the hard work can happen. Just as we do on safety, we will hold the mirror up and encourage honest dialogue about what needs to be done. This collaborative approach will be embedded in the Sustainable Rail Strategy that I'm working on with colleagues throughout the industry. I look forward to telling you more about this towards the end of this year.

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George Davies
George Davies
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