Road: the zero carbon alternative to rail freight?

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The idea that road might be a zero carbon alternative to rail sounds counter-intuitive, even to convinced petrolheads, but the situation could arise, according to a new report for the government entitled “Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce: Final Report to the Minister for Rail”.

Malory Davies, FCILT, Editor.

Malory Davies, FCILT, Editor.

The taskforce has been looking at how to make the rail industry zero carbon by 2050. For passenger, the answer is relatively simple – electrification.

It is not so straightforward for freight. At the moment rail freight emits about 25 per cent of the CO2 of road (per tonne kilometre). In 2017, it removed some 8.2 million equivalent road journeys totalling some 1.7 billion road miles.

But reducing the carbon footprint of the rail freight network would be costly. There are about 850 freight locomotives in use. The report says: “Freight operators have expressed concern that manufacturers may have neither the appetite nor the capacity to design and build a new hybrid or other form of low carbon emissions heavy haul locomotive that could achieve significant carbon savings over the options now available. The UK would place small orders (the replacement rate averages about 30 locomotives each year) and has a bespoke gauge not compatible with the European market.”

It quotes the National Infrastructure Commission as saying: “Without these costs being paid, most likely from public expenditure, the only other way for rail freight to be carbon free would be for it to transfer to other modes, such as zero emission HGVs.”

So the options seem to be: spend immense amounts of taxpayers’ money on electrifying the rail freight network, or shift 8.2 million lorry loads of freight back onto the roads.

These are very unattractive – isn’t there a magic bullet that will solve the problem?

Apparently not. The report says: “The taskforce acknowledges that this is the most challenging area for rail to decarbonise and supports 
the NIC recommendation for a government led analysis and strategy for rail decarbonisation, including ‘the investments and/or subsidies that it will provide to get there’.”

The main suggestion it comes up with is carbon offsetting. It says: “There would need to be a detailed analysis of how offsets would be funded, should it be necessary, as seems likely, to offset such residual emissions from the rail industry elsewhere in the UK economy.”

This highlights some of the challenges in moving to a zero carbon economy – and, of course, this is not going to happen for 30 years, so there is time to come up with better solutions.

But the work needs to start now – the fear must be that in five years’ time another taskforce comes to exactly the same conclusion, and in ten years’ time and in 20 years’ time…

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