TRANSPORT SCOTLAND is now talking about electrifying the lines connecting all seven of Scotland’s cities. Already, Edinburgh and Glasgow are linked by four rail routes, all four of them now electrified, and wires extend to Stirling. In an interview with RAIL magazine Transport Scotland’s director of rail Bill Reeve said “the working assumption” would be electrification to Perth, Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen. Worth adding here that the largest of these cities, Aberdeen has a population (228,000) only slightly greater than that of Pennine districts such as Rochdale or Calderdale. So why is rail electrification in the North of England lagging?
Back in August the Electric Railway Charter wrote to Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP when he was still fairly new in the job of Secretary of State for Transport. We made the argument for restarting a rolling programme. A reply from the Department for Transport (DfT) felt very much like a standard answer to letters raising similar points. The DfT says policy is “that rail investment decisions are based on assessments of value for money and passenger and freight benefits [with] enhancements based on the needs they are fulfilling, rather the methods of fulfilment.” They are “committed to electrification where it delivers benefits for passengers and value for money”. What about where it offers the best way of rail playing its part in the battle against climate crisis? There was no mention at this point of the climate benefits of decarbonisation, although there was discussion of air quality and introduction of “progressively more stringent EU standards to drive down emissions from new rail engines” with the aim of a 90% reduction in particulates. That’s good for the quality of the air we breathe, but unfortunately even clean hydrocarbon fuelled engines emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.
The final paragraph says “Our work to improve air quality sits alongside our plans to decarbonise the rail network,” and restates the “ambition to remove all diesel-only trains by 2040”. Note, just “diesel-only”. There is the truism that “since 2010 we have delivered 25 times more route miles of electrification than was delivered between 1997 and 2010”. So, when was that wiring first planned, and where are the plans now for now for the next ten years of electrification of lines such as ours? Serious cost savings are now predicted with a 10-year rolling programme, teams retaining skills moving on to the next project. Finishing the Huddersfield line then moving on to the Calder Valley.
Also in an open letter to Grant Shapps, David Shirres, editor of Rail Engineer magazine showed “how and why electrification is, for almost all rail traffic the only long term decarbonisation option”. His September magazine was themed “achieving zero carbon, leading with “Electrify everything”. https://www.railengineer.co.uk/2019/08/28/rail-engineer-aug-sep-2019-decarbonisation-achieving-net-zero-olert-overhead-monitoring-electrifying-innovation-better-by-design/
Causes for hope? In October the government launched a “ground-breaking plan to achieve net zero emissions across every single mode of transport”. The plan should be ready for action this year; it surely must have substance and can not be delayed (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-to-go-further-and-faster-to-tackle-climate-change). During the election campaign Boris Johnson hinted in Derby that he might reinstate the full Midland Main Line wiring project.
There continues to be much interest in hydrogen (H2) but let’s not forget that producing the gas (whether from electrolysis of water or from reforming of methane), transporting it, and then using fuel cells to convert its energy back to electricity is highly inefficient, with well over half the total energy wasted. And making hydrogen from hydrocarbons like methane releases carbon dioxide as a by-product. The H2-enthusiasts’ answer is “CCS”: carbon (dioxide) capture and storage, requiring a whole infrastructure yet to be developed. Hydrogen may have a role particularly in places such as the Tees valley where a supply is available from existing industry, but electric railways are tried and tested technology that we should be expanding now.
Battery technology will continue to develop. A recent report by Norwegian railways recommended batteries plus partial electrification to replace diesels. Norway already has 60% of rail lines electrified, compared with less than 40% in the UK (https://www.statista.com/statistics/451522/share-of-the-rail-network-which-is-electrified-in-europe/).
Nearer home, Vivarail, the company repurposing former London Underground stock, has developed a battery version of its “D-train” that could work for some currently diesel branch lines. A range of up to 60 miles is predicted and, crucially, a quick charging bank enables a full charge in 10 minutes between trips.
This all helps towards the essential goal of getting rid of diesels. But it certainly does not remove the need for full electrification of strategic routes like our Calder Valley Line.
Recently David Brown, managing director of Northern, told RAIL magazine “We would like to see additional electrification from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge or Rochdale.” Such a modest proposal should be just the start.