What does a post-carbon economy look like? Remove the image of Father Christmas from the side of an illuminated lorry and put him in high-vis at the control panel of a Class 88 electro-diesel locomotive. Pull 50 times the amount of cargo than that of his holiday HGV. Or, better yet, replace him entirely with one of the thousands of indefatigable train drivers moving freight up and down the country to ensure Christmas is delivered on time and with significantly less CO2 output.
Those passionate about rail and who follow it closely have always understood that trunk haulage by train is, environmentally speaking, the superior method of transport. However, the fact of its superiority is something that the general public are largely unaware of. Its high time rail freight was put in the spotlight. In the wake of HGV driver shortages across the country (100,000 short of the required number according to the Road Haulage Association as of September 2021) and the ongoing discussion around sustainability, the question is put: why not switch to rail permanently?
In 2018, the Department for Transport challenged the rail industry to replace all diesel-only traction from the network by 2040. The following year, the government imposed legally binding targets to reduce the net emissions produced by the railway by 2050. ‘Net-zero’ refers to offsetting the emission of carbon dioxide across industries for which it is feasible to do so in an attempt to counterbalance those produced by industries where decarbonisation is more difficult (aviation and agriculture, for instance).
Network Rail’s plan for decarbonisation has since evolved and a broader, more comprehensive commitment to climate action exists now in the form of its Environmental Sustainability Strategy. Chief Executive Andrew Haines surmises what the future could look like: “Rail is efficient and seen as environmentally sound by the public. The busiest parts of the system have long been electrified. Rail can move millions of people quickly and cleanly over short or long distances, in cities and the countryside.” He continues to say that this opportunity cannot be realised, however, without “the right strategy, investment and personal commitment.” With a strategy in place and no shortage of personal commitment on the part of those that wish to see it delivered, investment is often the fulcrum over which these developments rest.
The shift from private, independent travel and long-distance road haulage to that of something more centralised cannot be achieved without the fervent financial support of the Treasury. Yet this is the juncture at which these infrastructure redevelopment programs are often met with objection or, as is the case with the recent £30bn proposal for continued electrification as per the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy, flatly declined.
Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Natural Infrastructure Commission, aptly observes that “2050 isn’t getting any further away and we need a detailed and costed plan for ensuring rail is decarbonised.”
“Given the costs involved, it’s not unreasonable for some prioritisation of routes to take place, to ensure public money is being targeted at the places where it will make the most difference to passengers and the environment. But the simple fact is the slower we start the slower we’ll finish.”
Public confidence in the future of rail infrastructure continues to wane in the wake of such news and attention is drawn almost exclusively to the cost of such projects as opposed to the long-term benefits they’re likely to yield. Yes, the cost of installing overhead electrification is significant (up to £2.5m per kilometre), but contingencies for such expenses are accounted for in the form of alternative means of decarbonisation where possible, such as the induction of battery or hydrogen-powered trains across a total of 2400km of dedicated track.
Where freight transport by road is iconised in the all-too-familiar visage of the Coca Cola lorry, the image of which is now synonymous with the holiday season, it’s time we projected the image of rail’s role in delivering goods across the network into the public consciousness. One such advertisement could involve Tesco’s dedicated train that delivers thousands of tonnes of produce all the way from Spain every week. Rakes of blue shipping containers that read ‘LESS CO2 RAIL’ along the side traversing great distances unperturbed by congestion and foibles at the border is, in the humble opinion of this commentator, worthy of depiction and of consideration as the conversation around transportation and sustainability draws on.
Image citations in order of appearance:
Phil Sangwell from United Kingdom (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tesco_”Less_Co2″_(3297722450).jpg ), „Tesco “Less Co2” (3297722450)“, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
John Fielding (https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_fielding/41540141524/) “Container ship aerial image – The MSC Tina at Felixstowe docks”, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
Stewart Williams (https://bit.ly/3DXIvr9) “Holidays are Coming”, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode