Transport minister Jo Johnson has called on the railway industry to take diesel-only trains of the track by 2040 – the same year that sales of new petrol and diesel cars are due to end.
Johnson said full electrification would probably not be the alternative and suggested bi-mode trains might fill the gap.
“Bi-mode trains fitted with modern diesels – which we started introducing last autumn on the Great Western line and on the East Coast Main Line in 2018 – are less polluting than the trains they replaced.
“And as battery technologies improve we expect to see the diesel engines in bi-modes replaced altogether. With batteries powering the train between the electrified sections of the network,” he said.
“Or maybe in the future we could see those batteries and diesel engines replaced with hydrogen units?”
Johnson wants the railway industry to provide a vision by the autumn of how it will decarbonise.
However, the Rail Freight Group has warned that setting such an arbitrary deadline could damage the case for investment in rail freight.
“While battery and hydrogen may show promise for lightweight passenger trains, their application for heavy duty freight is at best unproven,” she said.
“Rail freight operators and customers are developing options to reduce their emissions in the short and longer term, and we would like to see Government support this through its research, investment and support programmes. In particular we would like to see the remit of the Office for Low Emission vehicles extended to cover all freight modes; current retrofit grants for buses and other road vehicles extended to the railways; and continued affordable electrification of the strategic freight network.”