Public transport

Cheaper, Cleaner, and Greener: The Future of UK rail

By - World Infrastructure Journal

Cheaper, Cleaner, and Greener: The Future of UK rail

As the UK rail network attempts to accommodate the ‘levelling up’ agenda while also becoming climate-neutral by 2050, it must not only embrace new environmentally friendly technologies and commit to decarbonisation, but plan carefully, creatively, and competently.

The looming spectre of climate change and the immediate action demanded to limit its impact have caused most industries in the UK to begin looking beyond a post-COVID-19 society to plan for the future. Amongst these, the rail network is uniquely positioned to lead the UK’s shift towards a greener economy.

Despite already being a relatively environmentally friendly mode of transport by accounting for just 1.4 per cent of transport emissions, it remains under utilised at just 10 per cent of transport journeys in the UK. If further moves were made towards making rail infrastructure more sustainable coupled with greater usage of trains instead of more environmentally damaging modes of transport, there is an opportunity for UK rail to double-down on its goal of becoming greener. However, in order to take advantage of this opportunity, there is a need to embrace new technologies and commit to decarbonisation while also planning sensibly and looking at the bigger picture.

As part of Public Policy Projects Future of UK Rail inquiry, in partnership with, CPMS, Hitachi and Siemens, the latest session focused on 'Technology and the Decarbonisation Agenda'. Helen McAllister, Network Strategy and Planning Director, Network Rail, Nick Hughes, Sales Director, Hitachi Rail, and Kate Jennings, Policy Director, Railway Industry Association were brought together to discuss this further.

Sustainability at every level

After an address from Stephen Hammond MP, Infrastructure Chair of PPP, which characterised the challenge faced by the UK rail industry as becoming not only “cheaper, but cleaner and greener,” Ms McAllister, led off the discussion by pointing out that planning towards environmental sustainability should not exclusively focus on traction decarbonisation or even carbon emissions in general. Rather, it should also take into account issues such as air quality and the maintenance of biodiversity along rail lines. She went on to highlight that while issues such as traction decarbonisation could be potentially solved by further electrification and the usage of hydrogen and battery (although the latter two technologies are currently limited in their utility) there will be a need to ensure the source of that electricity – the National Grid – is itself environmentally sustainable.

Ms McAllister also discussed the need to ensure that simple solutions to efficiency are not overlooked, stating, as an example, that “if you can reduce the size of the structures that you need to use to hang your wires, you're using less steel and that is more carbon friendly. ” Similarly, Nick Hughes pointed out that simply getting more people to use the rail network would go a long way to reducing the environmental impact of less efficient modes of transport. He pointed out that in countries such as France and Germany, domestic air travel has been reduced by policies which have expanded the availability and encouraged the use of high speed rail travel.

Meeting goals

Mr Hughes was clear that UK rail is vital to meeting the net-zero 2050 target. In his estimation, the only feasible avenue towards national net neutrality involved both an increased usership of passenger and freight rail as well as completing the electrification of the UK rail network and ending the introduction of diesel trains. Moreover, he noted that there would also be a need for the  government to embrace procurement reform to ensure efficiency in the creation and expansion of infrastructure, prioritisation of the UK supply chain, and innovations in hydrogen and battery technology to be embraced. The latter however, is “complementary to electrification rather than an alternative to it. ”

Kate Jennings, similarly reiterated that the potential benefits of improving of the UK’s rail infrastructure went far beyond a simply cleaner rail infrastructure. Specifically, Ms Jennings raised the point that as the UK seeks to economically ‘level up', a cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable rail network could potentially be instrumental in supporting economic growth.

The UK however, is at something of a crossroads in regards to its rail infrastructure, Ms Jennings noted. On the one hand, the upcoming G7 and COP26 conferences pose unique opportunities for the UK to take a global leadership role on decarbonisation, particularly as it applies to rail infrastructure, by commencing a rolling electrification program and setting concrete goals for the industry going forward. On the other, she stated that rail travel in the UK is at “risk of being taken for granted,” and not being considered as a central part of the UK’s economic recovery or its climate directive.

She outlined that while the Prime Minister had previously indicated that rail would receive significant investment, there is still a need for those within the industry to continue to campaign via programs such as the RIA’s ongoing RailDecarb21 initiative. Those campaigns, however, will have to be followed up by feasible proposals that minimise the cost of the expensive task of decarbonisation. As such, it is crucial that policymakers can, through foresight and creativity, find the most efficient route to efficiency.

Next steps

PPP is committed to bringing these policymakers together with the private sector within the Future of UK project, to create a holistic and ambitious vision forward for the rail network. The next session will be focusing specifically on freight in the network and will be taking place at the beginning of June. If you would like to find out more about the project, or submit a case study for the report, please get in touch with Genevieve Redgrave, Policy and Publications Editor at

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