Decarbonising UK railways– who pays?

The debate over UK Railways in the General Election demonstrates how little climate change is really factored into the policy debate. The question of rail fares arose, which will rise by an average of 2.7% in 2020. Various promises were made to reduce these fare rises or remove them by different parties to garner votes. Those parties don’t reconcile these promises with their green agenda.

What this political debate fails to recognise is the level of investment needed to decarbonise the railways and how it will be paid for. This is an example of how Green Deal advocates underestimate the costs of decarbonisation.

Just under 60% of the network uses diesel trains, because only 42% of the network is electrified. Compared to European railways, the UK lags behind in terms of electrification. Switzerland leads with 100% and a number of smaller countries are close behind, but the UK is below the EU average of 54%. While hydrogen trains are mooted as a solution, they are carbon trains as currently hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels.

As in many other aspects of decarbonisation, the question is who pays for this electrification investment? It can only be paid for by train passengers through their fares, the train companies or the government. If fares don’t rise, for political reasons, the only way to fund this investment is through the train companies or the government. The recent problems with a number of the train franchises in the UK would suggest that the train companies will not being paying for this. That leads to the conclusion that it will have to be the government.

Depending on the cost per kilometre, the price ranges from £10 billion to £27 billion at the currently achieved figure cost per kilometre (2018-2019 track figures). Compare this to the HS2 cost of roughly £100 billion.

If the UK is serious about decarbonising the railway system, the railway network needs to be electrified. The investment is significant, but seen in the whole, more freight and passengers will be using the network as transport decarbonises, so capacity increases will be needed as well, together with the electricity generation infrastructure to provide the power. Politicians need to be transparent as to who pays for decarbonisation investments – there isn’t a magic money – the most likely source will be government capital expenditure.

There is a longer discussion of the issues in achieving zero carbon in the Transport sector as a whole in my book Zero Carbon Our Choice.

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One thought on “Decarbonising UK railways– who pays?

  • Is there a running cost advantage to using electricity, as there is for electric cars? If the contracts for the services weren’t so time limited, the operators would be able to invest. But of course, we’ve got track and trains with different people!

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