Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Johnson Environmental Speech Wins Guarded Plaudits from Rail Freight Industry

However Move Away from Diesel Still Criticised in Some Quarters
Shipping News Feature
UK – In a speech earlier this week, the recently appointed Minister of State at the Department for Transport, Jo Johnson, announced his intention to see freight and passenger rail operations move away from diesel trains by 2040, to be replaced by greener and cleaner alternatives, as the UK's transport sector as a whole looks to reduce its environmental impact.

In acknowledging his lofty ambitions, Johnson highlighted the UK government’s commitment to ending sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, asking ‘why can’t the railways aspire to a similar objective?’ In his speech, Johnson spoke at great length of the future potential for a cleaner rail network, highlighting advancements in technology, as well as outlining his expectations for the industry for the year ahead. Johnson said:

“Rail may be less carbon intensive than road transport. That’s why modal shift’s so important. Getting freight and passenger vehicles off the roads onto greener forms of transport, but that does not absolve the rail industry from cleaning up its own act.

“You may have seen stories recently about transport becoming the most polluting sector of our economy, and the fact that rail emissions have actually increased in absolute terms, up 33% since 1990. This cannot go on. Now, we are making progress on modernising rolling stock, for example, the much derided Pacers are going along with other long-standing members of the fleet like Intercity 125s. Old diesels being replaced by much cleaner trains featuring low carbon and NOx technology.

“But we need to go further. By decarbonising rail, we’ll reduce pollutants and improve air quality, particularly in our semi-enclosed stations. We will tackle this with the urgency it deserves by setting tough new environmental performance goals in each rail franchise which the train operators will have to meet.

“Total electrification of our tracks is unlikely to be the only or most cost-effective way to secure these vital environmental benefits. New bi-modes trains are a great bridging technology to other low emission futures. 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.

“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, or maybe in the future we could see those batteries and diesel engines replaced with hydrogen units?

“Alternative-fuel trains powered entirely by hydrogen are a prize on the horizon. I’d like to see hydrogen train trials on the UK railway as soon as possible. Hydrogen offers an affordable, and potentially much cleaner, alternative to diesel, and the technology has developed fast in recent years to the extent that Alstom is now testing a train which only emits steam and condensed water - yet is capable of 140 kilometres per hour and a range of up to 800 kilometres which matches the performance of regular regional trains. Rolls Royce is also looking at this technology.

“So the next generation of trains is just around the corner. To speed our journey towards a zero-carbon railway, the government is investing record amounts in public research and development to improve our knowledge base. Through the environmental performance goals we are setting in each rail franchise, we will hold the train operators to account for progress.

“These include reducing energy consumption of trains, depots and many stations. We have tasked Arriva, the operator of the Northern franchise, to deliver an electric/battery hybrid on the Windermere branch from 2021, but the drive to decarbonise must come from all sectors of the industry.

“So I am calling on the railway to provide a vision for how it will decarbonise and I expect the industry to report back by the autumn. I want to see a clear, long term strategy with consistent objectives and incentives, I want to see options like lighter rolling stock and alternative sources of power considered and analysed, I want barriers to innovation removed, so ideas can be brought to market more rapidly, and I want to see the railway industry show a lead on this crucial issue, with train operators, Network Rail, and the companies that supply them - all working together as one team.”

Maggie Simpson, Rail Freight Group (RFG) Executive Director, welcomed the plans to replace diesel trains but drew caution against the deadline, saying:

“Rail freight is acknowledged for its superior environmental performance and the Rail Minister is right to challenge the industry on how that can be further improved. Yet whilst battery and hydrogen may show promise for lightweight passenger trains, their application for heavy duty freight is at best unproven, and setting an arbitrary deadline of 2040 could well therefore be counterproductive, damaging the case for investment in our sector.

“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
  • Continued affordable electrification of the strategic freight network.

The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT), a company with charitable status devoted to advocating better all-round transport, and aptly presided over by Michael Palin with support from Jenny Agutter, also welcomed the news, but similarly raised concerns, calling on the government to realise a consistent, long-term plan. In a detailed statement the CBT said:

“Overall, rail plays an important role in reducing the environmental impact of transport and with investment in new technology it is well placed to do more. It is therefore tempting to see the announcement as a signal that all diesel trains are about to be shunted permanently into the sidings. This is not the case. First, the announcement refers simply to diesel-only trains. The bi-mode trains brought in to run on routes with electrified and non-electrified sections will be unaffected.

”Second, it is not clear what Johnson means by decarbonisation. If diesel bi-modes are acceptable in carbon terms, what about hydrogen or battery power and any carbon associated with them? Third, it does not necessarily mean a slew of clean new trains hitting the tracks. Converting aged diesels so they run on wholly or even partly on another energy source would apparently be enough. Fourth, no changes are imminent - today's Young Persons Railcard holders will be nearly 50 before the cut-off date for withdrawing diesels arrives.

“So, to have legs, the Government's announcement will need to be accompanied by a plan and investment, but will either be forthcoming? The Government has cancelled a series of electrification projects, most recently just over six months ago when the long-promised electrification schemes between Cardiff and Swansea, the Midland mainline and in the Lake District were all scrapped.

“Although the Government is now clear that the electric-diesel bi-mode trains are only a transitionary bridging technology, the cancellation slammed the brakes on cleaner, faster and more reliable travel offered by electric trains and our petition calling on the Government to reconsider its decision was signed by over 14,000 people.

“In overall energy use, rail can already claim to be relatively green but its impact on local air quality is much less positive (see recent studies of air quality at Birmingham New Street, for example). The headline announcement from Jo Johnson is a requirement to take all diesel-only trains off the tracks by 2040, mirroring the cut-off date for sales of petrol and diesel cars.

“Again, this is very welcome, but rail famously has long lead-in times. The risk of setting such a distant date it that we end up with the same dirty old diesels trundling around the network for another 20 years. The target date needs to be accompanied with a clear roadmap to zero emission trains, setting out how both research plans and other tools like franchising will be used to clean up the industry. Technologies such as hydrogen train certainly show potential, but bringing them forward in a manner which also reduces carbon emissions will be no small task.

“There are huge opportunities for decarbonising rail and an urgency in cutting pollution levels at railway stations. The Government’s intervention is welcome but punting it over to the rail industry to sort out is on its own not enough. To be meaningful, the Government’s desire for a cleaner, greener railway needs to be supported by a consistent long-term strategy with investment and research that sets out a clear vision for the future and gives investors, the industry and the travelling public the certainty they want and need.”

There was also, unsurprisingly, a downbeat note, as with most Tory government pronouncements, from the RMT Union whose General Secretary Mick Cash, never a man to understate his operations position, said;

"If you were serious about cracking on with the phasing out of diesel trains you wouldn't be scrapping key electrification projects which will mean the commissioning of more diesel operated fleet. That scrapping of long-planned electrification rail works by Chris Grayling makes a mockery of Jo Johnson's ‘aspiration’ to scrap diesel units by 2040. There is also the question of who pays for this. There must be no free ride for Britain's rip-off private rail companies at the tax payers’ expense.

"The bottom line is that if we hadn't had over two decades of privatisation and profiteering on Britain's railways we wouldn't have ended up jammed in the slow lane. The money siphoned off by the spivs and speculators would have enabled us to keep pace and build a railway fit for purpose.

"Instead of promises of jam tomorrow we need to tackle the crisis on Britain's railways today and that means a planned service, publicly owned and free from the exploitation that has left the British passenger paying the highest fares in Europe to travel on clapped out, rammed out and unreliable trains where private profit comes before public safety."

Photo: Courtesy of Stoomgroep Limburg