Why is Britain’s rail network still dependent on high-polluting diesel trains?

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“We diesels don’t need to learn. We all know. We come to the courtyard and improve it. We are revolutionaries. ”

So boasted Diesel, the fluid-speaking diesel engine that takes off on the island of Sodor to show Thomas the Tank Engine and his steam-powered friends what the future looks like. Railway seriess children’s books. More than 60 years later, this highly polluted diesel is still the future for more than 60 percent of the UK rail network.

This week Boris Johnson with the help of some vroom vrooming noise, extolled the virtues of electric vehicles. Really, UK pledged not sell new gasoline and diesel cars and vans from 2030; five years later, all new cars and vans should be completely zero exhaust emissions. The government is also more than ever seeking to establish itself as a leader in climate action since relative success Cop26… Write to v The keeper Cop26 President Alok Sharma said this week that all countries are in debt to youth activists “Deliver what we agreed.”

However, simply replacing every fossil-fueled car with an electric car will fall short of the UK’s emission reduction promises. Land transport is the largest emissions sector in the UK, accounting for up to 27 percent of the country’s territorial emissions in 2019. Emissions from land transport are expected to fall by 90 percent by 2050 to reach the government’s zero target, but they have remained broadly flat over the past decade, declining by just 1 percent between 2009 and 2019. the situation is aggravated by the fact that traffic, based on pre-pandemic trends, predicted grow by 22 percent from 2015 to 2035.

In July, the UK government laid out what it believed, “the world’s first green leaf“Decarbonize all forms of inland transport by 2050”. This included a pledge to secure a “zero rail network by 2050” with ambitions to remove all diesel trains – passenger and freight – from the network by 2040. needed to avoid a car-led recovery, ”said Grant Shapps, UK’s Secretary of Transportation, in the foreword to the plan. “We need to make public transportation, cycling and walking a natural choice for everyone who can use it.”

But progress towards this goal is at the same speed as Thomas the Engine’s friend Gordon, a train that always brags when he one day tries to climb a hill with squares. In other words, not very fast — even backward. Indeed, Gordon must ultimately be rescued by the much maligned Edward Blue Engine.

First problem – HS2… The plan was to create a high-speed rail link between London and major cities in the Midlands and northern England. In July, Schapps wrote that this, along with “other major projects … will bring benefits to passengers, including carbon savings more quickly and efficiently” than in previous proposals, “which would keep the North and the Midlands – and the environment – waiting twenty years. any major improvement. ” But last week the government announced that the leg between East Midlands and Leeds disposed ofd.

The second problem is that in order to decarbonize its rail network, the UK will have to ditch diesel and electrify. However, only 38 percent of the UK grid is currently electrified in terms of kilometers, with the rest still using diesel. This figure is much lower compared to other European countries… Switzerland leads the ranking, where 99 percent of its rail network is electrified, 76 percent in the Netherlands, 61 percent in Germany and 56 percent in France.

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Last year, only 179 km of railways were electrified in the UK, less than half the stake it is necessary to decarbonize the network by 2050.

“By 2050, we need to electrify 13,000 kilometers, which means we need to electrify about 400 kilometers a year,” said David Clarke, technical director of the Railroad Industry Association (RIA) recently. “And without any major schemes, we can reasonably expect that there will be less work in the coming year, not more.” And he had some more bad news. “It is imperative that the industry also loses experience and opportunities while the schemes are deadlocked, which means that it will be more difficult to complete the significant amount of work required if and when new projects start.”

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak save the planet with green finance?]

It is not cheap to electrify a section of a railroad. According to the RIA, the cost of electrifying a 1 km rail line in the UK is around £ 2 million. However, the RIA argues that the UK is lagging behind other countries not because of the associated costs, but because of “the lack of a permanent electrification program.” Instead, the UK is seeing a boom and bust investment approach with long periods of zero electrification of projects followed by years of high demand.

Research shows that electric trains produce 24 percent emissions from a diesel train and that electric trains are about three times more energy efficient than their more polluting counterparts and more powerful. Better, cleaner rail connections – getting trucks off the road is also important. Even a 4 percent conversion from road freight to rail can save up to 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Electric trains are also better for passengers and their health, RIA notes. “They are faster, more reliable, offer more capacity and smoother rides for passengers,” Clarke says. “Electrified lines also improve air quality and reduce noise in and around stations.” And while the upfront costs are significant, “electrification can save £ 2 million to £ 3 million per passenger car,” says RIA, as electric trains are cheaper to operate and maintain, and reduce track wear because they are lighter.

Given the situation, it would seem time to bring out the equivalent of the fat controller who ruled Thomas and his friends with an iron bar in order to come up with a genuine plan to launch UK trains into a zero-performance future.

[See also: The road to net zero]

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