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Electric railways are greener railways

Andrew Allen's picture
Photo: campaigners on the Midland Main Line

Arguments about regional inequalities in rail spending have festered for years. While these traditionally focus on economic and social consequences, the decision to axe major electrification projects shows why environmental impacts matter and need to be addressed. 

Most governments are accused at one time or another of geographically skewed priorities. In this respect, recent decisions to drop the electrifications of major rail routes in the north, the midlands and south Wales while offering vocal support for the multi-billion pound Crossrail II proposal beneath London was grist to the mill. 

The Government's response to the invective and obloquy which was heaped upon it has been three-fold. First, they have highlighted a decade-long programme of investment as proof of their commitment to rail. This is undoubtedly true, but the replacement of a multi-billion pound five-year funding cycle with a simple pipeline of individual schemes means future spending looks much less certain. Second, there is a promise of new measures to keep costs under control and ensure committments are delivered on. This is welcome, but there will be hurdles to negotiate in making it happen - not least concerning accountability and safety. Third, the Government has denied that the dropped and postponed schemes are needed any more. Electrification is an expensive and slow way of transforming underperforming and overcrowded services, they claim, and technology can make it happen more cheaply and efficiently. 

But is it true? A range of new technologies are coming forward - digital signaling, and battery and hydrogen-fuelled trains are in development, for example. It is easy to imagine these will create faster, more efficient and greener rail services. But they are not there yet - for the foreseeable future it is bi-modal electric-diesel locomotives that we are talking about. 

Current bi-mode trains are described by one rail industry commentator as "either very expensive overweight electric units or very expensive underpowered diesel units, all with added emissions". It is one thing using such technology to bridge a gap in the electrified network where putting up wires is difficult to justify, its quite another to scrap a major programme of electrification because bi-modal trains get the job done more cheaply while we want to better technology which may or may not be around the corner. 

Relying on diesel traction also raises some big environmental problems. For one, they won't help improve transport's lamentable record of reducing carbon emissions. Although direct comparisons are difficult, electric trains emit between 20 and 35 percent less carbon per passenger mile than diesel. While rail is responsible for a comparatively small percentage of overall emissions, it's status as a comparatively green way of traveling will come under increased scrutiny as road transport cleans up its act and begins to move to electric power. 

Equally important is air pollution. Diesel engines score badly for nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate emissions. While there is limited research into air pollution impacts of rail, that which is available is not read positively. Research carried out at London Paddington in 2015 found the station to be in breach of limits for NOx, while particulates and sulphur dioxide levels where much higher than on nearby main roads. Researchers concluded diesel trains were the primarily the culprit. Separate research looking at the East Coast Mainline suggests diesel trains may be responsible for breaches of NOx up to 200 metres either side of the line, with emissions up to 50 per cent higher than the limits for residential areas

With local authorities under notable pressure to clean up toxic air, rail could find itself in the firing line. Northern cities like Hull which have had their electrification plans dispensed with could find themselves in a very difficult position. 

Campaign for Better Transport has been pushing the Government to reconsider its axeing of the electrification programme. Well over 10,000 people have signed our petition calling for a rethink. We have also been supporting local campaigners in their efforts. As these pictures show, we joined Leicester Friends of the Earth and other local groups in taking a giant electrical plug from London to Sheffield in a relay, asking the Government to 'plug in' trains. While new technology may in time surplant the need to hang wires we are not there yet. Help us convince the Government that it has underestimated all the benefits of electrification and that the programme should be reinstated.

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