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Spending Review special: Transforming the transport fleet to zero emission vehicles

Norman Baker's picture
Man in electric car

Later this autumn the Government will publish its spending review, setting out spending plans for the various Government departments. In a series of blogs, we're making the case for sustainable transport to be supported as part of a green recovery. Our first blog looked at public transport, our second at roads; this one looks at zero emission vehicles.

Over the last months there has been just one item dominating the news – COVID 19. This has turned the world upside down, including presenting huge challenges to the public transport sector.

Yet there is another very serious challenge the world faces that we would be foolish to forget, and that is climate change.

It is vital that we make speedy progress as a country to net zero carbon emissions, and that of course must include transport, responsible for more of our carbon emissions than any other sector. For while the UK has made really good progress in cutting emissions from electricity generation, transport emissions have remained stubbornly high.

Each type of ‘people carrier’ needs to be cleaned up. The vehicle where the country had been making some progress is the bus, thanks to Government grants and the willingness of the industry to move to zero emission vehicles (though statistics released by the Department for Transport this week reveal that despite best efforts, only two per cent of the bus fleet is currently zero emission: there is a long way to go). But the arrival of the virus means orders for new clean buses have ground to a halt, and some pre-March orders have even been cancelled. Apart from the carbon consequences, this is seriously bad news for Britain’s bus manufacturers who have been enthusiastic in their support for zero emission buses.

Rail travel has rightly been regarded as a cleaner alternative to the private car, but unless the rolling stock fleet is decarbonised, it won't reach its full green potential. It is unfortunate that over the last 20 years, we have seen a stop-start approach to rail electrification which has damaged forward planning, led to inappropriate trains being purchased, and Network Rail finding itself short of people who know how to put up wires.

Electrification is back in favour and let us hope it stays there. But of course it is hopelessly uneconomic to electrify long rural lines that see relatively few trains. That is why it is welcome that the rolling stock companies are developing cleaner trains that run on batteries, or clean hydrogen. Take the line from London Bridge to Uckfield. This is electrified as far as Oxted, but a diesel runs all the way under the wires because the last stretch to Uckfield is not. Here an electric train fitted with a battery is a good answer. Elsewhere, one rolling stock leasing company, or ROSCO, is developing a hybrid diesel / battery train, this time with air pollution in mind, so the train can switch from diesel as it travels through densely populated urban areas.

The Government has been keen to see the private car and van fleet go electric, which is the right policy. We welcome its positive approach to ultra-low emission vehicles and its investment in electric charging infrastructure. But electric cars and vans are not a silver bullet. For one thing, we need to begin to factor in the pollution that comes from tyre wear and brake dust – these are not insignificant – and of course simply moving from petrol or diesel to electric does nothing to tackle congestion. A bus, which can take 75 cars off the road, does.

Through its upcoming spending review, the Government should aim to accelerate the transition of road and rail transport to zero emission. 

  • It should introduce incentives for businesses to buy electric cars and vans, and grants for local authorities to invest in charging hubs. 
  • It should support the bus manufacturing sector through sector-specific deals to increase production of zero-emission buses, with a view to shifting all new buses to zero-emission from 2025, and replacing all fossil fuelled buses by 2035. 
  • It should expedite a rolling programme of rail electrification and the introduction of zero emission technology such as hydrogen fuel cell trains, with the aim of replacing all diesel trains by 2040. 

These measures would not only help to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, but would stimulate the economy for a real green recovery, supporting manufacturing and creating jobs.

In parallel with supporting zero-emission vehicles the Government should encourage modal shift, incentivising people to cycle and walk for short distances and use buses or trains for longer journeys. A later blog in this series will look at how this can be achieved. 

Read the final blog in this series: Spending Review Special: Incentivising change