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Network Rail publish decarbonisation strategy by 2050

Network Rail decarbonisation report

Network Rail has outlined its vision to decarbonise thousands of miles of rail lines across the UK by 2050.

In a new report, the transport body illustrated preliminary recommendations for decarbonising the rail network, including over 7,000 miles of electrification by 2050, and a key role for zero carbon traction – including hydrogen and battery.

The report acknowledges that reducing carbon emissions in rail is vital, stating it will bring benefits directly to the rail industry and bring a subsequent domino-effect of benefits across the transport sector and wider economy.

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What could replace diesel?

The Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce has highlighted three key traction technologies which are sufficiently mature to replace diesel; battery, electric and hydrogen. However, they all have their own capabilities which mean that not all are appropriate for all types of rail services.

For example, battery and hydrogen are not fit for long-distance high-speed and freight services as they require higher energy needs than battery and hydrogen can provide.

Electric traction is very versatile in that it can successfully provide energy for all types of journeys. But it depends on fixed infrastructure to transmit electricity and this infrastructure has a relatively high capital cost compared with battery and hydrogen technology.

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There are numerous other recommendations within the report, such as any proposed new railway should consider the need to operate using zero carbon rolling stock (i.e. battery, electric or hydrogen), in conjunction with the wider network to which it is linked.

Another recommendation is that a stable and efficient programme of traction decarbonisation is the most efficient way for us to deliver this work and will enable us to incorporate all the lessons learned from previous electrification. This programme is also likely to include interim solutions to make the most effective use of resources and keep disruption to passengers and freight to a minimum, while meeting emissions reduction targets. This programme will be considered as part of the TDNS programme business case.

‘Unleash a rail revolution in the Midlands’

In the West Midlands specifically, Network Rail’s recommendations include the electrification of the lines running between Birmingham and Derby, Leicester, Nuneaton and Shrewsbury via Wolverhampton.

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It also recommends electrifying a freight-only corridor looping around north Birmingham which sees significant traffic flow to avoid major urban routes with ambitions to add passenger services to this corridor.

Midlands Connect has welcomed the report, with Maria Machancoses adding that most of the region could see the benefits of the scheme. She said: “This welcome announcement by Network Rail could unleash a rail revolution in the Midlands not seen in a hundred years.

“It will create skilled jobs, help level up the economy and help the UK to meet its net-zero target. But not only that, passengers will see improved reliability and faster journeys.

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“The historic report recommends the electrification of almost all the Midlands rail network over the next few decades, and Midlands Connect looks forward to working with Network Rail and Department for Transport in developing the sequencing and the case for investment.

“The government’s agenda is rightly – build back better and build back greener and we are supporting that every step of the way. This project will help our work to deliver investment and growth to every corner of the region. This gives us the green light to engineer a system that really couples the East and West Midlands for the first time with decent, speedy and effective rail links.

“There are clearly opportunities now like committing to extend electrification of the Midland Main Line from Market Harborough and Sheffield and further electrification of other main lines and busy commuter routes must be, I believe, the top priorities.”

Last year, the UK Government set out a legislative target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 which included a plan to remove all diesel-only trains from the network in England and Wales by 2040 while the Scottish Government is aiming for 2035.

Paul McMahon, from Network Rail, said: “Rail has the potential to move large volumes of people and goods reliably with zero carbon emissions with current technology.

“We have a huge opportunity to play an important part in a green economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic and tackling climate change.

“As our power supply comes from nuclear energy, it is logical that we immediately focus on reducing diesel train usage on our network with the ultimate goal of removing them entirely.

“Over the last year, Network Rail has worked collaboratively with the rail industry to establish how we can best work together to achieve this (and) I am delighted we are now able to set out the different ways how we could minimise direct carbon emissions from trains.”

David Clarke, Technical Director of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “The publication of Network Rail’s interim Decarbonisation Plan is very positive, setting out a clear case for the electrification of intensively used passenger and most freight lines, with the decarbonisation of other routes through zero carbon technologies, like hydrogen and battery. Hydrogen and battery technologies are likely to play an even greater role in the medium term to reduce carbon emissions whilst electrification is being rolled out.

 “This report, developed with the rail industry, comes at a pivotal time, as current work to electrify the Midlands Mainline comes to an end, leaving the UK with no electrification projects being delivered on the ground. Without further work soon, the industry will begin to lose valuable skills and the capacity to deliver these schemes, making it harder to deliver these projects when work resumes.

 “This is a big opportunity for the rail industry to provide a clean, green and more connected railway, encouraging more people onto low carbon transport, whilst generating jobs and investment following the Coronavirus pandemic. But to do this we need Government to give the ‘green light’ to support electrification, support the deployment of low carbon train fleets and support the sector, so we can deliver an environmental, economic recovery. This green light need not wait for the final Strategy to be published – there are projects which should be progressed immediately.”

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Sam Hewitt