The Government wants rail to be greener and cleaner. That’s great, but to make it happen we now need to see a consistent long-term plan.
Rail Minister, Jo Johnson, has called on the rail industry to do more to cut carbon emissions and clean up air quality.
This is welcome. Overall, rail plays an important role in reducing the environmental impact of transport and with investment in new technology it is well-placed to do more.
It is therefore tempting to see the announcement as a signal that all diesel trains are about to be shunted permanently into the sidings. This is not the case. First, the announcement refers simply to diesel-only trains. The bi-mode trains brought in to run on routes with electrified and non-electrified sections will be unaffected. Second, it is not clear what Johnson means by decarbonisation. If diesel bi-modes are acceptable in carbon terms, what about hydrogen or battery power and any carbon associated with them? Third, it does not necessarily mean a slew of clean new trains hitting the tracks. Converting aged diesels so they run on wholly or even partly on another energy source would apparently be enough. Fourth, no changes are imminent - today's Young Persons Railcard holders will be nearly 50 before the cut off date for withdrawing diesels arrives.
So, to have legs the Government's announcement will need to be accompanied by a plan and investment, but will either be forthcoming? The Government has cancelled a series of electrification projects, most recently just over six months ago when the long-promised electrification schemes between Cardiff and Swansea, the Midland mainline and in the Lake District were all scrapped.
Although the Government is now clear that the electric-diesel bi-mode trains are only a transitionary bridging technology, the cancellation slammed the brakes on cleaner, faster and more reliable travel offered by electric trains and our petition calling on the Government to reconsider its decision was signed by over 14,000 people.
In overall energy use, rail can already claim to be relatively green but its impact on local air quality is much less positive (see recent studies of air quality at Birmingham New Street, for example). The headline announcement from Jo Johnson is a requirement to take all diesel-only trains off the tracks by 2040, mirroring the cut-off date for sales of petrol and diesel cars.
Again, this is very welcome, but rail famously has long lead-in times. The risk of setting such a distant date is that we end up with the same dirty old diesels trundling around the network for another 20 years. The target date needs to be accompanied with a clear roadmap to zero emission trains, setting out how both research plans and other tools like franchising will be used to clean up the industry. Technologies such as hydrogen trains certainly show potential, but bringing them forward in a manner which also reduces carbon emissions will be no small task.
There are huge opportunities for decarbonising rail and an urgency in cutting pollution levels at railway stations. The Government’s intervention is welcome, but shunting it over to the rail industry to sort out on its own is not enough. To be meaningful, the Government’s desire for a cleaner, greener railway needs to be supported by a consistent long-term strategy with investment and research that sets out a clear vision for the future and gives investors, the industry and the travelling public the certainty they want and need.