A perfect storm of recent political announcements heats up the argument for urgent action to decarbonise transport – action that must include electrification of all strategic rail lines. Electrified railways are the most efficient means of supplying zero-carbon traction energy. Electric Railway Charter campaigners in the Pennines welcome the recent announcement by Boris Johnson (4 December 2020) of enhanced greenhouse gas targets. We say the time must surely now be right to commit to long-promised enhancement schemes, and a rolling programme of electrification that will pay for itself through future savings in train operating costs, cost as well as carbon cuts.
But the recent spending review cut £1bn from Network Rail’s infrastructure enhancement budget. And years continue to pass in the wait for visible progress on projects like the Huddersfield line TransPennine route upgrade (first announced in 2011), and the Northern Sparks task force recommendations (March 2015). Northern Sparks recommended – just as a start! – a 5-year programme of electrification across the North of England. That was 12 schemes with the Calder Valley Leeds-Manchester/Preston given top ranking.
The Prime Minister promises a 68% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compare with 1990). Within that, transport must have a programme to become zero carbon. For our passengers and freight, Network Rail’s traction decarbonisation network strategy (TDNS) published in September showed that the vast majority of present diesel-operated railways need to be electrified. Alternatives such as hydrogen will be for a minority of mainly more lightly used or remote routes.
Disappointingly, there was no commitment on the need for rolling rail electrification in the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s autumn spending review. We support the response by Railfuture last week: Railfuture | Press release 26th November 2020 . Rail campaigners welcome (still somewhat tentative) plans for a selection of line reopenings and new stations, but more strategic needs fail to be addressed. The later-revealed cut of £1bn from Network Rail’s 5-year enhancements budget threatens essential projects at a time when rail should be a major part of building back better after Covid.
We are about to “celebrate” 10 years of inaction on the TransPennine Route upgrade. TRU was allocated £589M last July. A letter from the Department for Transport to Halifax and District Rail Action Group (replying to our September letter to Grant Shapps – also attached) says this was to enable “design and development work” on the Manchester-Huddersfield-Leeds-York line. Full electrification (on the back burner since 2017) is still only being considered, and “the most optimal approach” will be determined “by mid-2021”. Huddersfield Civic Society has received a similar letter.
“Mid-2021” will be the 10th anniversary of the original announcement of TRU – understood then to involve full electrification. Clearly the time for action is overdue. We cannot have further months and years of protracted replanning, assessment of options, lack of decision, and delay. We have already had a decade of that.
At the same time, next March will be six years since publication of Northern Sparks, the report of the Northern Electrification task force, an all-party group of MPs and regional leaders supported by Network Rail and the DfT, and chaired by Harrogate MP Andrew Jones.
Northern Sparks recommended to government an initial 5-year plan of 12 routes across the North of England. Top-ranked route on economic, environmental and business criteria was the full Calder Valley Line from West Yorkshire via Brighouse, Bradford and Hebden Bridge to Rochdale, Manchester, Blackburn and Preston. Calder Valley electrification is a natural follow-on to the Huddersfield-line TRU, and has recently been prioritised in West Yorkshire’s submission to the National Infrastructure Commission (https://westyorkshire.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s16325/Item%207%20-%20Appendix%201%20-%20NIC%20-%20final%20response.pdf).
Encouragingly the DfT’s letter to HADRAG (along with an answer given by Grant Shapps at the recent Yorkshire Post Great Northern Conference) suggests that further rail electrification is intended and will be influenced by TDNS. We await the DfT’s full decarbonisation strategy and call for this to give the go ahead to a full rolling programme of railway electrification that will cut costs and deliver future benefits in more efficient, zero-carbon train operation.
Along with other campaigning groups across the North, the Electric Railway Charter wants to see all MPs, local and regional authorities, business groups, and Transport for the North renewing the call on government, not least on the Treasury, to progress railway electrification. ·
It has been shown by the Rail Industry Association (RIA) that a rolling programme could reduce wiring costs by 30% to 50%. Electric trains are modern, high-performance for speed on Pennine routes with frequent stops, and more attractive to passengers in a world where we need to reduce road traffic, improve air quality and create a more sociable transport system that promotes human wellbeing as well as addressing the climate crisis.
Electric railways are also cheaper to run – more energy efficient, simpler than diesel or hydrogen-powered vehicles, lower maintenance, longer lasting. Rail electrification will pay for itself in the long-term through cutting costs as well as carbon.
So the Treasury needs to look at capital and operating costs holistically. In the 1980s British Rail electrified the East Coast Main Line from Hitchin to Leeds and Edinburgh from its own internal resources. Even if in some respects it was done on the cheap, this was a success showing what could be done.