Decarbonising the railway: Why choosing local routes could be the path to success

Decarbonising the railway: Why choosing local routes could be the path to success
07 October 2019

Author: Jonathan Brown, Business Development Manager, Rolling stock

Although rail's energy consumption per passenger kilometre is significantly lower than other forms of transportation, there has been growing acknowledgement across the sector that, far from resting on laurels, it could be doing more than its share in the push to eliminate CO2 emissions.

Taking this a step further, by showing a commitment to decarbonise, the rail industry can support a more holistic strategy for the transportation of people and goods, and pave the way for a shift to rail from modes where there are currently no pragmatic zero-carbon solutions as we target net-zero by 2050 (or 2045 in Scotland), such as for long-distance road freight.

From talking to Ricardo’s clients in the rail sector over the past 18 months, there has been a clear shift from ‘how can we reduce costs?’ to ‘how can we reduce our impacts on the environment’. And central to the industry’s collective response is a long-term commitment to decarbonise the railway.

No 'one-size-fits-all' approach to decarbonisation

Indeed, in a July 2019 report published by the UK’s Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce it was felt the UK could be leading the way in Europe drive to decarbonise the railways.

But it also cautioned that it would require a mix of ‘cost effective electrification’ and the ‘targeted’ deployment of technologies towards where they offer the best solution.

This is a message that chimes with a presentation that my Ricardo colleagues and I delivered at this year's Scottish Transport show in Edinburgh’s Corn Exchange (September 25th).

During a lively discussion with an audience that included representatives from Transport Scotland and Network Rail, we debated that whilst several avenues were open to the industry, we must be not only realistic in our choices, but also more prepared to encourage local responses to each scenario.

Consider hybridisation. The Glasgow to East Kilbride route, to take a Scottish example, is a short 16km route where a train could feasibly use the layover time under the wires at Glasgow and the initial two kilometres of electrified track on route out of Glasgow to charge an on-board battery that should provide sufficient power for the remaining fourteen kilometres (the line currently requires diesel rolling stock).

This approach would likely be unsuitable for other lines that radiate from Glasgow – routes that extend for 100kms where perhaps net-zero carbon biofuels or hydrogen may be more viable options – but that should not preclude the use of hybrid technology where it could be fully optimised.

Another theme from the Masterclass that also reflected the taskforce findings was the need to lower cost of electrification and exploit new sources for renewable energy. And this is where there should be a greater focus on partnerships with local communities and their resources.

Riding Sunbeams is a project that Ricardo has been supporting in Hampshire, UK which this summer saw a test unit comprised of around 100 solar panels become the first in the world to directly supply renewable zero-carbon electricity to an adjacent railway line.

Image: Riding sunbeams solar array, Hampshire UK, July 2019

Whilst still early days, consider the ambition of this project: the use of solar arrays or other renewables to directly supply energy that power railways, metros and light rail systems across the world. However, we would not even be at the earliest stages of testing its potential if it were not for a mix of ingenuity and a willingness to work with local stakeholders.

Our discussion concluded that there is indeed wide recognition, at all levels of the industry, that environmental impact has become a major driver for innovation and that the railways can be a genuine catalyst for change in society. But to achieve that, it must be willing to move away from the traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and focus on the opportunities of each specific situation.