Rail sector needs to pick up pace on decarbonisation, panel says

The rail industry needs step up the pace in implementing changes and making investments that can reduce its carbon footprint, according to panellists at the final session of Day Three (Friday 30 April) of the RIA Innovation Conference 2021. 

Senior industry figures tackled the topic of ‘Decarbonising for Green Recovery’ in a session chaired by David Clarke, RIA’s Technical Director. 

Jaqueline Starr, CEO of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), said rail was “uniquely positioned” to help the country build back better and greener post-Covid but warned that competitor transport modes were “not standing still”, citing growing investment in electric cars.

Malcom Brown, CEO of Angel Trains and Chair of the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, urged the sector to snap out of a cycle of focusing on research and instead adopting a ‘fail fast’ approach to green investments. There are, he said “real opportunities for UK to become a global leader” in decarbonisation but there was no ‘silver bullet’.

Mark Phillips, Chief Executive Officer of the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), echoed Brown’s point that the country needed to move “rapidly” into implementation. He cited air-quality and ‘weather-resilience’ as emerging topics of priority. “One of the issues that the industry faces, particularly post-Covid, is that we have really got to remake the case for people to use rail as a means of transport, and pushing our sustainability credentials will go a long way towards achieving that,” he said.

Porterbrook’s Chief Executive Mary Grant described her company’s work with ‘hybridisation’ and its partnership with the University of Birmingham on hydrogen-powered trains, saying the company hoped to “bring a [hydrogen] passenger service onto the main line” by the end of this year. 

Martin Frobisher, Group Safety and Engineering Director at Network Rail (NR), said the COP26 UN climate change conference, due to take place in Glasgow in November, was an opportunity for the sector to showcase its efforts at a global level. NR’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy (published last September) was, he said, intentionally very specific about “early milestones”, saying the industry must focus on “taking action now”. ‘Indirect’ emissions are a big challenge, he said, adding that the rail supply chain needs to commit to science-based environmental targets. 

Nick Hughes, Sales Director (UK and Ireland) for Hitachi Rail, outlined environmentally-friendly initiatives and investments that the company has made, including the development of hydrogen-powered trains, later saying that “we’re all itching to get started” on deployment on the rail network. 

During the session’s Q&A, there was a consensus that a major programme of rail electrification was needed – urgently - to help achieve carbon neutrality. At present, almost two-thirds (62%) of the UK rail network is not electrified. 

Frobisher said electrification schemes were typically perceived as “putting up wires” but actually they should be seen as civil engineering projects related to tunnels and bridges. NR had, he said, been doing work to reduce the clearance between bridges and wires (“we have got it down to four inches using the latest technology”), and that this is where efforts should be focused. Hydrogen and battery technologies also have a role to play “on secondary lines, branch lines on the last-few-miles into a terminal”, he said.

The RSSB’s Phillips agreed that a major programme of electrification was needed but said the industry had a “big job to do to convince government that we can do it efficiently”. The industry “needs to think how we can fund electrification schemes ourselves,” he said.  

Starr concluded by saying that 2035-2040 “may seem like a long way off, [but] it’s not” and that the industry “needs to take action now” on decarbonisation.

The session had begun with three presentations, respectively focused on hydrogen technologies, battery technologies and electrification.

“We [the UK] have a lot of wind and a lot of water - those are the main things that make hydrogen,” said Jo Bamford, Executive Chairman of Ryse, who set out the case for hydrogen, saying the UK “stands a chance of getting it embedded in our economy” and outlining growing investment volumes.

Lorna McDonald, Head of Commuter at Hitachi Rail, put forward arguments in favour of battery technologies, saying there was potential to install battery technology on more than 400 trains by 2030. Jay Mehta, Rail Sector Manager at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, presented the company’s own solution.

Garry Keenor, Group Engineer at Atkins, said that batteries and hydrogen “clearly have a role” to play in rail’s decarbonisation but that “for most of the network, electrification is the only option”. This was the conclusion of a report, ‘Why Rail Electrification?’ (published last week), that he co-authored.

“We need a rolling programme of electrification to avoid another cycle of boom and bust,” Keenor said. “Ultimately we will not decarbonise, and our railways will be more expensive to run, if we do not electrify.”

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