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Beyond COP26: Rail’s role in the transition to a green economy

By Hannah Moxon

I was pleased this week to attend the last in a series of COP26 roundtables where I joined industry leaders in discussing the UK's transition to a net-zero carbon economy. Outlined below is a summary of the rail industry's mission to help achieve this vital milestone by 2050.

Recent warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document the pervasive impacts on humans of increasingly dangerous and widespread climate events. The ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic too has shone a light on our fragile globalised networks. Taken together these developments point to the need, now more than ever, to tackle climate change if we are to create a resilient and sustainable future for ourselves. 

Achieving this will not come without significant economic costs. Significant investment in our national infrastructures will be required, as will support in developing greener, cleaner technologies. All the while we will need to account for significant contractions to our economy as we transition to net-zero, ensuring that all corners of the country are able to benefit and level up as a consequence. 

Fortunately rail is perfectly placed to help. As one of the greenest modes of transport and an industry with a credible plan to reach net-zero, rail will play a central role in helping to decarbonise not just the transport network but the economy at large. Many of the technological solutions to rail network decarbonisation are already in existence or well developed, such as battery and hydrogen trains.

But there is a wider story too, rail has the potential to become a key customer for the UK’s renewable energy sector with the possibility of sourcing all electricity to run trains from renewable sources by the mid-2030s (as RDG recently outlined in its submission to Great British Railways Transition Team’s call for evidence for a Whole Industry Strategic Plan). Furthermore, the work of the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce has demonstrated that – subject to sufficient funding being available – it is feasible to decarbonise rail from a traction perspective by 2050 as well as removing all diesel-only trains from the network by 2040. 

That’s why we are calling on the government to commit to a long-term programme of electrification alongside investment in hydrogen and battery technologies where electric is not viable. This would be an investment not just in the railway but in the UK’s wider economy. Analysis conducted for RDG suggests that this programme could support an average of 6,000 jobs per year across the programme between 2024 and 2050. 

Perhaps more significantly, decarbonisation of Great Britain’s rail industry would deliver benefits across the nation helping contribute to levelling-up. Based on the geographical location of infrastructure works and rolling stock manufacturing plants, we have estimated that these 6,000 jobs will be evenly distributed across the country. Scotland and South West still requires much diesel ran track to transition to electric, while substantial levels of activity across the Midlands and North exist in the assembly of battery and hydrogen powered passenger vehicles. 

With the right investment, rail has the potential to become the backbone of a sustainable transport network which provides not just opportunities for people but better connectivity for all. The experience of the pandemic has underlined the importance of connecting people and places. But while critical to the nation’s wellbeing, the true value of rail reaches far wider than simply the journeys people make. Rail supports businesses and communities up and down Britain. Economic research published as part of RDG’s ‘Lets Get Back on Track’ campaign last year estimated that, before the pandemic, the total spending associated with rail leisure travel was £133bn. 

Getting people back on track will help drive a speedy and sustainable recovery from the pandemic, but significant modal shift from road to rail is still required if we are to reach the government’s net zero ambitions. The private sector has been at the forefront of innovation in rail since privatisation, helping to drive increased patronage in both passenger and freight sectors. Train operators have used their commercial knowledge of their markets, together with the development of partnerships with stakeholders, to deliver innovative marketing campaigns and ticketing initiatives that have delivered great products for customers and helped increase revenues. 

The freight sector too has exemplified the benefits of private sector involvement in the economy, increasing productivity through significant outside investment and evolving quickly to meet the ever-changing demands of customers and the economy. As we move into a new carbon free era for the railway, government should look to maximise these benefits by incentivising businesses to switch their goods from road to rail. Private sector operators support a target of trebling rail freight volumes in the UK by 2050, helping to focus both government and industry on delivering a carbon net zero network.

In a post-pandemic world where new passenger service contracts will replace the franchising system of old, rail operators must be given the right levers and flexibilities within contracts to seek out further opportunities to promote new customer offers, particularly in long distance leisure markets. With a track record in driving up passenger numbers and reducing the costs of the railway, private operators are ideally placed to once more ease the burden on the public purse while encouraging more and more people to travel in a cleaner, greener way.