How can the UK rail industry prepare to deliver a net zero ready transport system?


Many of us recognise that rail is a low carbon and sustainable travel option; I am certainly hoping many of you do. In 2018 greenhouse gas emissions from rail (passenger and freight) made up just 1.4% of the UK’s domestic transport emissions, while 10% of all passenger miles travelled in the UK were by rail.

As the Railway Industry Association recently reported, shifting just 4% of passenger movements and 4% of freight movements onto rail from other modes of transport, would save more carbon than the rail sector’s current total emissions.

How much do passengers truly understand the carbon impact of their journey choices? As higher carbon transport modes decarbonise, a Herculean effort will be needed to maintain rail’s position as the low carbon transport mode of choice and to share that position with existing, and the millions of potential passengers to keep them onboard. We just need 4% to make the switch, how hard can it be?

There can be no doubt as to the rail industry’s commitment and enthusiasm for decarbonisation. It has embraced the challenge of helping to play its part in meeting the UK’s 2050 net zero target and is removing diesel powered trains from the network by 2040.

Yet to achieve this, the industry faces an intensive period of significant infrastructure upgrades, operational transformation and developing a value for money customer experience. This opportunity must be leveraged to transform how infrastructure is designed, constructed and operated. We must not deliver infrastructure solely for today’s needs and instead, must visualise how society will operate in the future, its changing needs and how our day-to-day lives will evolve socially and digitally.

Long asset lives means that decisions made about infrastructure today will either enable or restrict the future of low carbon rolling stock, which has a 35+ year lifespan. If history teaches us anything it’s that we are terrible at predicting societal and technological change, just ask Marty McFly; Back to the Future Part II was set in 2015!

Decarbonising is an imperative for all sectors of the economy ahead of the UK’s 2050 net zero target, and because of the climate emergency. This will require the rail industry and associated infrastructure to adapt and innovate quickly to deliver a smart, integrated and net zero ready transport system.

Decarbonisation will undoubtedly be transformative for the rail industry, but it poses significant challenges and questions which need to be answered, my top seven are these:

1.      How can we decarbonise the railway without compromising passenger experience?

2.      How can we minimise disruption to services?

3.      How can we link rail into existing and new modes of transport as part of a system wide approach to transport decarbonisation?

4.      How do we make decisions in the short term that will produce the best outcomes for a net zero world?

5.      How do we use rail to improve air quality, especially in stations that are within air quality management zones?

6.      How do we reduce noise pollution from rail, especially freight?

7.      How do we design, create and deploy railway infrastructure that is ready for the climate of the future whilst still operating safely and comfortably?

My clever colleagues at Jacobs have been cogitating over these imponderables to help our clients to answer these questions for many years, collecting client approved carbon savings data on rail projects from 2014 (before Marty arrived). Fast forward to 2021 and we have captured our insights on these questions in our Net Zero Rail: Network of the Future report here, where we have set out our vision for the zero carbon railway of the future, and our road map to deliver that vision. We have proposed solutions for the whole railway system, looking to answer some of the seven questions above.

We focus on creating low carbon infrastructure, rolling stock, external connections (e.g. utilising lineside land for renewables or providing electric vehicle charging points at stations), and perhaps most importantly, how we put passengers first in a net zero world. Improved journey experiences, ticketing, timetabling and facilitating last mile journeys will all help to facilitate this.

John Downer is Rail Market Sector Director for UK & Ireland at Jacobs.

John invites you to reply here (scroll down to comments) to share “your thoughts, your conjectures, your leftfield ideas, and what should Back to the [carbon] Future Part IV look like?”.

Feature Image Source: SeppH on Pixabay

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