Rail decarbonisation and ‘levelling up’ in the North

“The rolling programme of rail electrification, through cost effective delivery, is the real prize for the climate.” Chas Ball, convenor of the Zero Carbon Yorkshire Transport Working Group, explains how a government commitment to full electrification of rail systems in the North could play a major role in decarbonising the UK economy.

Trans-Pennine railway
Chas Ball

Much of the debate about ‘levelling up’ our transport infrastructure in the North has focused on “jam tomorrow” projects. We know that HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) – if they get the go-ahead – will only deliver in the 2030s and the 2040s. 

The trans-Pennine route upgrade, which runs from east to west, has twice been postponed by Tory governments, backtracking on promises in two recent elections. Now it offers an immediate and tangible opportunity to ‘level up’ the north of England at a time when the impacts of Covid-19 are driving the North’s economy in the other direction.

Despite an announcement in July that the Government wished to see full electrification of the entire trans-Pennine route, there has been little sign of how that commitment will be delivered. With mounting concern in northern regions about our neglected infrastructure, we are still waiting for clear, unambiguous and funded plans by the UK Government. 

With national decisions on rail investment imminent, we need recognition that a rolling programme of electrification, as recently proposed by Network Rail, needs to be approved as a major contribution to the decarbonisation of transport. 

What would benefit the North and Midlands in the 2020s – and contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions – is a government commitment to full rail electrification as a rolling programme over the next 20 or so years. 

Although rail contributes less than 1 per cent of the total UK annual greenhouse gas emissions, it is in the unique position of currently being the only transport mode capable of moving both people and heavy goods using a zero-carbon solution. 

As a result, by providing reliable, green transport for goods and people, rail has a huge potential to scale up and play a major role in the decarbonisation of the UK economy. The rail industry is clear that the capital costs of electrification will be more than offset by lower capital costs of electric trains and lower energy, operating and maintenance costs. 

For rail to contribute fully to the UK achieving its net-zero legislative target, diesel operation will need to reduce and gradually be phased out. 

Full electrification offers other tangible environmental rewards. These include better connectivity between communities across the North, improved air quality in our towns; freight transferred from our motorways to rail, and improved reliability and journey times for passengers.

The rolling programme will create sustainable and well-paid jobs in design, integration, management, manufacturing and construction and will ‘level up’ the economy through job creation away from London and South East, says Network Rail. 

According to Network Rail’s Interim Traction Decarbonisation Network Study, these projects would be “primary drivers of the green economy, helping both to create jobs involved in sustainability and stimulating demand through a highly specialised and advanced supply chain. This would not be limited to the supply of machinery and plant but would also maintain and create skills among the engineering firms involved with these projects”.

Finally we need to consider how soon we could expect improved services on local lines in the North. The recommendations of the Northern Electrification Task Force will be essential to any new investment plan. Its inclusion will be a critical test of government commitment ‘levelling up’. 

For Zero Carbon Yorkshire nothing less than an explicit government commitment to the full trans-Pennine route upgrade will suffice. But the rolling programme of rail electrification, through cost effective delivery, is the real prize for the climate. 

Chas Ball is a member of the Colne Valley Green Party and convener of the Zero Carbon Yorkshire Transport Working Group