The importance of rail in meeting the UK’s net zero ambitions

Andy Bagnall, Rail Delivery Group

From the outset of the pandemic, the rail industry has worked together to support the national effort, providing essential travel for key workers and transporting goods across the country. And, like many sectors, our railways have faced unprecedented challenges in the last nine months, at times even involving the deliberate but necessary suppression of passenger demand to support the government’s Coronavirus restrictions.

Coronavirus has shifted our reality, with travel patterns having changed significantly and trends such as flexible and remote working increasing rapidly. Because of this there has been considerable speculation about the long-term impact of the virus on rail.

As the economic recovery takes hold, hopefully later this year, with enforced homeworkers likely to return to their workplace to some extent, the UK is facing the danger of a car-led recovery, with the rail industry facing the challenge of having to restore passenger confidence in using public transport.

Figures suggest that, as the UK came out of the first national lockdown last summer, the number of cars and lorries on the road returned almost back to normal with an average of 96 per cent of pre-Coronavirus traffic levels, exceeding pre-virus figures at weekends, while rail passenger numbers barely returned to 40 per cent of previous loadings. This is not sustainable in the long-term and needs to be addressed urgently.

Increasing railway patronage to pre-pandemic levels will be essential if we are to meet the Government’s legal commitment of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and its aim for at least 68 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade, compared to 1990 levels.

Indeed, with greater emphasis on the green agenda, rail now has the opportunity to become the sustainable travel mode of choice. A fully decarbonised rail system, including an electrified national high-speed rail network, can help deliver modal shift, giving long-distance car travellers a better option, while allowing for decongestion by getting more freight off our roads.

Green credentials of rail

The Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force, set up in 2018, consists of players from across the industry and aims to deliver a step change in rail’s emissions by removing diesel trains from the passenger network - in line with Government’s net zero target - while driving forward the use of alternative energy sources, such as hydrogen or battery technology.

At present, 38 per cent of Britain’s railways are electrified and a further 2,400 of the industry’s 14,000 carriages, many of which already electric powered, could be converted to use low-carbon traction options such as hydrogen and battery technology. Additionally, rail is already a low carbon transport mode accounting for 10 per cent of all journeys and just 1.4 per cent of the UK’s domestic transport emissions. Positive changes are already happening and, despite the pandemic, we proudly witnessed the launch of the first battery-powered long-distance train by Hitachi and GWR between London and Penzance in December last year.

The rail industry has been calling for major reform of the railway for some time and, in many ways, the changes brought by the pandemic have accelerated and accentuated the need for these reforms. Earlier this year, the rail industry published its proposals for a cleaner and greener future setting out how we can face this challenge head on. These included:

  • Setting contractual carbon targets by including carbon and wider environmental targets within future rail management contracts and giving a new National Rail Body responsibility for carbon monitoring and environmental regulation of the rail industry;
  • Levelling the transport tax playing field, ensuring transport taxation and charging regimes reflect the environmental impact of each transport mode in a consistent way;
  • Investing in zero carbon infrastructure, including further electrification of rail lines;
  • Supporting the growth of rail freight, as a green alternative to road haulage; and
  • Creating more sustainable stations.

The rail industry is also advocating for reform to the fares and ticketing system. Recent RDG research suggests that only 11 per cent of passengers plan to take the train more after the pandemic. When people begin to consider travelling by train again, operators must be able to offer them fares they want to buy. A system where passengers continue to need a crystal ball when buying a ticket, predicting their week’s commute on a Monday or the time of their return when they depart for leisure activity, will discourage travel. A reformed fares system should be built with passengers at its heart.

Train Operating Companies (TOCs) understand the nuances of the local markets within which they are operating. They can therefore design products, manage demand and better utilise capacity through pricing mechanisms which deliver greater efficiencies and lower pollution. Fares reforms will allow for more account based ticketing, enabling TOCs to tailor and personalise offers, and products to individual needs. A one-size-fits-all approach will not deliver value for customers or taxpayers. We believe empowerment of individual private companies to serve their localities with overall strategic oversight from an independent arm’s length body – offers the best value for money for customers and taxpayers. It brings decisions as close as possible to the customer and would also allow local authorities greater input than in a centralised system. This will ultimately help attract passengers back to rail, aiding the delivery of the Government’s net zero agenda.

There is momentum - the recent UK100 Net Zero Pledge signed by regional leaders committing to reaching Net Zero at least five years earlier than central government is proof that the UK is taking its commitment seriously. But we need to accelerate our green reform proposals, and fares reform especially, to ensure the UK reaches its full potential in unlocking low carbon transport.

This article is from our Local Path to Net Zero series.