While rail is one of the greenest modes of transport, with just 1.4% of domestic transport emissions attributed to it, there is still much work to be done to fully decarbonize the UK rail network. According to a 2021 Transport Committee report, only 38% of the UK rail network was electrified in 2019, with 9,855 km still powered by diesel. This means that there is significant potential to reduce emissions and improve air quality by electrifying more of the rail network.
Rail transport has significant environmental advantages over road transport. According to industry reports, every tonne of freight transported by rail produces 76% less carbon than the equivalent transported by road. However, nine times more tonne kilometers of goods are transported domestically by road than rail. A modal shift from road to rail combined with further electrification of railways could have a significant positive impact on decarbonizing the transport sector.
In addition to environmental benefits, there are also economic benefits to decarbonizing the rail network. Rail Partners, the trade association representing passenger rail and freight operating companies, estimates that delivering a decarbonized railway could generate around £2.2 billion in economic benefits and create approximately 6,000 high-skilled jobs, many of which would be outside of London and the South East.
The UK government has recognized the benefits of rail electrification and has made a strong case for accelerating the process in its Plan for Rail. The government argues that electrification not only decarbonizes existing rail journeys but also has a clear record of attracting new passengers and freight customers to rail, thereby reducing emissions from journeys that would otherwise have been taken by road.
However, electrification is not the only way to decarbonize rail transport. Other decarbonization technologies, such as hydrogen-powered trains, could also play a role in reducing emissions. Moreover, there is a need to improve the efficiency of the rail network and to ensure that trains are running at full capacity.
Sustainable transport can deliver positive impacts on health, air quality, and local environments, as well as creating opportunities to reduce costs. Rail already has one of the lowest emission profiles, but more still needs to be done to electrify remaining lines, where possible, and employ other decarbonization technologies, as well as shift transport from road to rail. By doing so, we can build a cleaner, more efficient, and more sustainable transport system for the future