Asa Whitfield, Founder and MD of WCS, Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers and rail electrification expert, discusses here what the UK is doing in this area and why, and whether goals will actually be reached.

The wider issue of net zero

Like almost every other country, the UK signed up to the 2016 Paris Agreement on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, and then followed this up with national targets. The goal for 2050 is net zero, which means almost no emissions, plus offsetting of any remaining residual ones.

According to the UN, transport accounts for a quarter of all emissions globally, so these goals won’t be reached without big changes in how we move ourselves and our goods around. In 2021, the government published its plan for decarbonising transport. This made significant pledges for road and rail. Other forms of transport, such as air, saw fewer specific or binding commitments, unfortunately.

What did government promise for rail?

Ambitiously, Decarbonising Transport promised to simply end the use of diesel-powered trains by 2040. The scale of the challenge involved here shouldn’t be underestimated; by the end of 2022, just 38% of the rail system had been electrified. Further change is envisaged after 2040, with detail to come on how government will ensure a goal of running a wholly net-zero rail network by 2050.

There’s more than one reason to electrify the rail network. Electric trains have about half the carbon footprint of diesel-powered ones, but this is by no means the whole of the picture. As the same source shows, even diesel trains are really pretty low in emissions compared to non-rail options. Road electric vehicles vary, but going by diesel train is probably better for the planet. For this reason, rail is only responsible for 1% of transport emissions.

So why the focus on electrifying rail? Partly, the obvious; if challenging overall targets are to be met, each bit of the economy must do its part. The other reason, though, is that net zero may be hard to achieve, even with all cars fully electric, unless more people are encouraged away from road and aviation. And if government is going to do that, naturally it makes sense to make the alternative less polluting and quicker, with journey times reduced using faster accelerating electric trains.

The plan is mostly line electrification, but don’t forget BEMUs

The pledge to phase out diesel trains by 2040 doesn’t constitute a promise to electrify the entire network by that date. It’s pretty clear this won’t happen. Rail electrification is expensive. It also results in a system that is sufficiently cheaper to run that it pays for itself, but government must spread that cost, so not every branch line will be electrified by 2040.

For some while afterwards, local journeys will often involve some option that isn’t diesel and isn’t an electrified line. That might include a hybrid (diesel-electric as currently in place on the Greater West in places) or trains with hydrogen fuel cells, but price will have to fall quite a bit to seriously challenge the battery option, Battery Electric Multiple Units (BEMUs).  

Rail electrification isn’t going smoothly

As mentioned, 38% of our rail network is electrified, 38.1% to be specific, up from 37.9% one year before. It is apparent that there have been significant delays. The consensus explanation is that funding jumps wildly from year to year. These lurches cause missed targets, because erratic funding doesn’t support enough of a base of people with the relevant skillset:

“Between 2009 and 2014, £200m was invested in electrification. The plan for the following five years was for electrification schemes totalling £4bn. This was an extraordinarily inefficient way to deliver electrification and contrasts with the steady rolling programme in European countries…with mistakes made owing to skills shortages,” says the Institution of Mechanical Engineers website.

Specialists are needed in this area

The company I founded, WCS, is one of the few that has had a consistent presence. Today there are over 40 of us, and a wide variety of projects, but initially there was 1, with most of the work being civil engineering support for those bringing power to rail. As we discussed recently on our company blog, we’ve chosen deliberately to maintain that original focus as a significant strand, even as we diversified, ultimately folding it into a wider corporate strategy, SustainableFuture, that centres on building in-house expertise in areas that are expected to grow due to sustainability awareness.

Case studies

Because of this history and focus, we have built up considerable experience in rail electrification, including work that has involved complex civil engineering challenges. Here are links to a few of the projects that exemplify this:

Final points

The government’s plans on net zero more widely, and rail electrification specifically, are cogent and imperative. We must all hope they are able to coordinate with train operating companies (TOCs) and others involved, and oversee delivery of the promised change by 2040.

More joined up thought on other modes of transport would do no harm. In the UK, most long-distance journeys are cheaper by air than rail, forcing passengers to choose between sustainable and affordable means of transport. Across the channel, governments are willing to absorb more of the cost of electrification, helping to avoid this and to encourage a switch to more sustainable travel options; some are taking even stronger action, with France recently banning short haul domestic flights. Still, progress is being made, and with thought and goodwill, we should all hopefully reach the terminus on our journey to net zero.

To learn more about WCS, please visit our contact page. To say hello in person, please stop in at stand M16 during Rail Live, where we look forward to continuing this discussion with contacts old and new, and catching up with partners and clients.