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Railways: Electrification

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what estimate they have made of the reduction in the use of diesel oil if railways connecting (1) ports, and (2) quarries, to inland distribution centres were electrified.

My Lords, specific information on the reduction of diesel use from rail connections to ports and quarries is not available. However, Network Rail analysis suggests that a decarbonisation strategy to achieve a 97% reduction in rail traction carbon emissions by 2050 would save a total of around 2,000 million litres of diesel used by freight trains, compared to 2019-20 use levels.

I thank the Minister for her reply. A modest extension of electrification would bring jobs to the supply industry, many of them in the north, and a big saving in the use of diesel oil in the next 10 years. Will the Government step forward and agree this programme, which has been under discussion for a long time?

The noble Lord is completely right that it has been under discussion for a long time—it is very important, and it is a very long-term plan. However, we are informed by the Network Rail-led traction decarbonisation network strategy, which feeds into what the Government are working on at the moment: the transport decarbonisation plan, which will be published shortly.

My Lords, given that, as we have just heard, it may be some time before the routes mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, are electrified, what measures can be taken in the meantime by the freight locomotive industry to minimise harmful diesel emissions—for example, particulate filters, selective catalytic reduction or, indeed, cleaner diesel?

Indeed, emissions are not just carbon: particulates play a huge role in poor air quality, and the freight-operating companies are taking active steps to reduce the amount of emissions their locomotives produce. For example, among other interventions the industry has begun using stop-start technologies—rather like we have on cars—on locomotives to reduce emissions when idling. We continue to work with the rail freight industry and the Rail Safety and Standards Board to look at what we can do and what research and development needs to be undertaken to reduce all emissions from rail freight.

My Lords, only around 40% of the UK’s rail network has been electrified so far, and many diesel locomotives are old and highly polluting. When will the Government set out their plans for achieving a net zero railway system?

As I have noted, the Government will publish in spring 2021 the transport decarbonisation plan, which will take a holistic and cross-modal approach to achieving net zero. However, this Government have electrified 700 miles of track in the last few years; we have a very ambitious electrification programme, which goes through the rail network enhancements pipeline to make sure that the right schemes are prioritised and that it secures value for money.

Will the Minister accept that these things, to use her words, take a long time because successive Governments, including this one, keep putting them off? Would it not make more sense to have a proper rolling programme of electrification that would meet the aspirations of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, and help bring about stability in the industry for those responsible for electrification? Finally, would it not also help the Government’s carbon reduction targets?

My Lords, these things take a long time not because of delays but because of all the quite correct processes that these schemes need to go through. The noble Lord points out that the Government need a long-term electrification plan. That is exactly what the rail network enhancements pipeline is: it looks at all the potential schemes, prioritises those that produce the best overall benefits and secures value for money for the taxpayer.

My Lords, as the Minister has just said, emissions from diesel trains have an impact on the health of staff and passengers waiting at stations, especially large enclosed stations. What regular monitoring is undertaken of emissions levels in stations to ensure that rules on the operation of diesel engines are followed?

As I mentioned in response to a previous question, the industry is well aware that emissions consist of not just carbon but particulates as well, and these will impact passengers and staff at large stations, particularly the enclosed ones, as the noble Baroness notes. I do not have details of the exact monitoring that takes place—I am fairly sure that it does take place—but I will write to her with further details.

As the Minister said, Network Rail’s traction decarbonisation network strategy states that the UK rail freight sector will be largely diesel-free by 2050, but do the Government think that is an ambitious enough target? Will they be having discussions with Network Rail and the rail freight sector on how this target date of 2050—some 30 years away—could be brought forward?

The Government are in frequent discussions with the rail freight sector. This is an important element of our decarbonisation strategy, as it takes goods away from the roads and transports them with a far lower level of emissions. The Government would actually like to remove all diesel-only trains by 2040, so I hope that makes the noble Lord happy. However, we must be cognisant that we do not want to shift freight from rail to road to achieve that target, because that would raise emissions. We are monitoring the situation, but our ambition is to remove all diesel-only trains by 2040.

I congratulate Network Rail on the strategy. Will my noble friend do all she can to encourage it to improve rail links to existing ports and, especially, to encourage more multi-modal global rail freight facilities such as that at Doncaster?

This Government have invested £235 million in the strategic freight network in the five years from 2014. We appreciate that the intermodal connectivity hubs are incredibly important. The largest amount of rail freight—39%—goes to these intermodal hubs, so we welcome the development of strategic rail freight interchanges. They are incredibly useful, combining warehousing and connectivity for rail and road.

My Lords, moving road freight on to rail is an interesting idea, because that would reduce the amount of diesel used. The port of Dover already has links with HS1, so have the Government investigated the option of moving road freight on to the HS1 line?

I am not aware of whether we have investigated the HS1 line specifically, but the Government do support modal shift for freight. For 2021, we increased the modal shift revenue support scheme, which aims to shift road freight on to rail and water, by 28% to £20 million. This has removed 900,000 HGV journeys from the roads.

I congratulate the Minister on the welcome commitment to modal shift that she made in reply to the last question. Is she aware, however, that extended journey times caused by the need to change from diesel to electric traction are one of the greatest deterrents to growing the rail freight business? The EU Goods Sub-Committee recently took evidence from a major freight operator which said it would it prefer to use the railway from east coast ports like Felixstowe, but journey times by road to the midlands and the north were much shorter. Will the Minister encourage her department to look at modest electrification projects that would make a real difference to the rail freight business?

Of course, we will look at modest electrification projects when and if they are brought forward. The issue of journey times is important, but rail freight has the advantage of being able to carry less urgent goods—heavy construction materials, for example—over long distances. Therefore, it can be used for lots of different types of freight, which is to its advantage.

My Lords, by 2010 rail electrification in England had stopped. Thanks to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, it got going again. It has stopped again. When will it start up again?

I do not recognise an awful lot in that question, but I would like to reassure the noble Lord that, of course, it has not stopped; projects do not stop just because you cannot see things being built. A huge amount of work happens before a project starts, as the noble Lord is well aware. This Government are committed to electrification and will look at appropriate schemes that secure value for money.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed, and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, that there was not time to take his question.