Government has set the direction, now industry needs to show how to become more sustainable

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Two important policy signals were received from the government last Wednesday. The much anticipated Transport Decarbonisation Plan (TDP) was published along with the Rail Environment Policy (REP). These documents represent crucial steps forward in this area and provide valuable guidance for the Sustainable Rail Strategy that I am developing with the industry for publication later this year.

Firstly, the teams involved in publishing these documents should be congratulated. It cannot be easy in the current political and economic climate to dedicate the necessary thought to long term and fundamental issues such as these. Also, it was good to see the Secretary of State and the DfT video (below) show-casing the investments and progress being made in this area.

The TDP doesn’t focus heavily on rail, as emissions in our sector are comparatively small, albeit certainly not a trivial quantity of transport emissions at ~1%. Understandably the plan hones in on road and aviation where the emissions are greater.

Although rail is not a big part of the emission problem, it can be a bigger part of the solution. Along with active travel (walking/cycling/wheeling), rail will need to be attractive for modal-shift, getting people out of their cars and onto the railway. A key consideration can be setting appropriate fares to make this happen.

Modal-shift in freight is also crucial, ensuring rail can compete with road to ease congestion and reduce emissions. Personally, I am fascinated by the innovation in high-speed logistics such as those presented by Orion from Rail Operations Group with Porterbrook and Swift being developed by Eversholt.

It was encouraging to see that a rail freight growth target will be set. We should also consider the same for passenger journey growth, although I appreciate the Covid-19 pandemic make this difficult at present. We need to think about how to adjust the way we use the network for freight and high-speed logistics. Should these be prioritised over passenger train frequencies?

Overall, from a rail point of view the TDP is helpful, and there is no doubt that this government is committed. But unsurprisingly the plan doesn’t give any clear answers to the questions surrounding rail decarbonisation. For emissions reductions it doesn’t clearly say ‘how much’ and ‘by when’ on the way to net zero. Also, it only briefly mentions the considerable issue of embodied or ‘whole life’ carbon in transport infrastructure. This will have to be addressed.

As for the tricky topic of electrification, TDP points to Network Rail and the need for the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy with costed options. Though like all investment decisions in the future railway these shouldn’t just be about financial capital, but also consider the benefits of rail investment economically and socially.

The Rail Environment Policy is particularly helpful to the sustainability work I’m leading on. It sets out the government priorities that the railway needs to address to become ‘Cleaner and Greener’.

The policy shows particularly strong leadership on how rail needs to tackle air quality. This supports the need for more electrification and zero emission traction - such as battery and hydrogen - which eliminate the combustion exhaust emissions from diesel.

The policy requires targets for air quality in public places across the network to be set next year and compliance with these targets by 2030. This is a welcome development, when after all, improving air quality is ultimately about protecting the health of colleagues, passengers and our communities.

So where next? Now that we’ve got further policy and no doubt more to come in the autumn on wider decarbonisation of the UK, the rail industry needs to interpret the policy into action. We must turn these into real initiatives that will take sustainability even further in the right direction.

Clearly leaders are keen to make the railway the 'backbone of a cleaner, greener public transport network', and once published the Sustainable Rail Strategy will set out in detail how that will be achieved.

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Get in touch with our Director, Sustainability for more information.
George Davies
George Davies
Tel: 0203 142 5345
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