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Railway Industry Association Report

Volume 812: debated on Tuesday 18 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the Railway Industry Association Why Rail Electrification?, published on 22 April.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question in my name on the Order Paper and remind the House of my railway interests as declared in the register.

My Lords, the Government welcome this report and agree that further electrification is required to decarbonise the railway, alongside the deployment of hydrogen and battery trains on some lines. In the last three years, we have completed almost 700 miles of electrification in England and Wales, and we will continue to do more.

My Lords, I welcome that Answer. The Railway Industry Association report is indeed excellent and the case it makes for a rolling programme of electrification is unanswerable. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to decarbonising the railway by no later than 2050? If so, do they accept that the most effective and beneficial way to deliver that is a steady, stable stream of electrification of between 400 and 500 kilometres each year? Will she and her ministerial colleagues in the DfT do their utmost to resist the Treasury’s efforts again to kick this into the long grass and water it all down by putting it off into the spending review?

The Government’s plans for decarbonising all forms of transport will be set out in the transport decarbonisation plan, which will be published shortly, but the noble Lord is quite right that the best way to make the most effective use of the supply chain is to have a rolling programme. That is why electrification projects are included in the rail network enhancements pipeline, which was last published in October 2019 and will be updated in the near future. I take his point about the Treasury, but it is also the case that we must be prudent and stay within the funding envelope that we have available.

The Minister will be familiar with the east-west railway line connecting our two main varsity towns. She will also be familiar with the fact that the design was for a fully electrified line, since when the Government have changed that to a non-electrified line, with electrical specification left for the future and the line being built by a private sector company. Are we really going to decarbonise our transport system by adopting this temporary and, in the view of many of us, expensive alternative, rather than going ahead with building the line as it was originally designed?

I reassure the noble Lord that it is our aim to deliver a net-zero carbon railway. East West Rail is a very important part of the development of the Ox-Cam Arc, which will support housing and jobs. Any decision to grant development consent for the project will need to demonstrate that it would not have a material impact on the ability of the Government to meet their carbon reduction targets. However, EWR Co, the company responsible for it, continues to examine decarbonisation options, including full electrification along the whole route, as well as various options for partial electrification using battery or electric hybrid rolling stock and other sustainable rolling stock options.

There is nothing really new in this review because, of course, electrification has always been a cleaner option and, as I never tire of saying, the Green Party has been saying this for 30 or 40 years. Why have the Government not taken this as a matter of urgency and done it much faster?

I take this opportunity to remind the House that the Green Party is against HS2, a position which I remain a little confused by. The noble Baroness is quite right that now is the opportunity to put our shoulder to the wheel and to electrify our railways as quickly as we can. That is why we will be setting out a rolling programme in the forthcoming RNEP, and why we take great heed of what was written by the Network Rail-led traction decarbonisation network strategy. That is not government policy, but there are some very important conclusions which we are looking at, and we will be putting them in the transport decarbonisation plan.

My Lords, the report mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, makes a compelling case for accelerating the electrification programme so that we can hit our carbon commitments, but it says very little about the industry’s capacity to deliver, which historically has been disappointing. Can my noble friend ensure that if the recommendations are accepted, we have the technical skills and know-how to deliver, on budget and on time, and that any reorganisation of Network Rail will not impede progress?

My noble friend is quite right. Indeed, the Rail Industry Association report in 2019 set out that one of the root causes of the challenges of electrification was the 20-year hiatus that had previously occurred in the electrification projects, which led to a loss of specialist knowledge. But we are looking at the supply side of this to bring forward the rolling programme of electrification; I specifically point my noble friend to the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy, which has a lot of information about the supply side. We are confident that, if we have the right programme in place, we can not only use the existing supply-side skills and expertise but grow them for the future.

Does the Minister agree that all the options in this report are better than diesel trains, which are just as bad as diesel cars for the environment and health? Can she therefore explain why the Government have fixed 2030 as the year to phase out all diesel cars while they are still promoting hybrid trains, which are of course simply diesel trains for large parts of their journey?

The noble Baroness will be well aware that decarbonisation of different modes has to happen at different speeds. For example, the reality on the railway network is that freight is a challenge, because it takes much higher levels of energy to pull freight cars along. Therefore, it is right that we look at each mode and try to decarbonise them as quickly as we can, and that is what we will set out in our transport decarbonisation plan.

Does my noble friend agree that had there been some diesel trains operating on the east coast main line, there would have been a greater number of trains operating, given the recent problems with the cracks? The electric trains can operate from any power source; which power source do the Government intend to use for electric trains?

I am not sure that I entirely understand that question. The electric trains will use the power sources available. Decarbonisation of the power network is, of course, very important and a huge amount of work has already been done to decarbonise power generation. Therefore, when we combine decarbonising not only power generation but the transport system as a whole, we will reach our target of net zero by 2050.

Why Rail Electrification? rightly claims that electricity is the cleanest and most efficient power source for UK railways, but electricity itself must be cleanly produced. It cannot be stored and requires the use of energy to convert it to other potential energy. There are other linked components to the use and distribution of power; does the Minister agree that tackling each of these in parallel is essential in meeting the target of net-zero emissions by 2050?

I agree, and I refer the noble Lord to the answer to my noble friend’s question just now. But I also point out that this is not just about electricity and electrification; there is huge potential for hydrogen in the mix. The Government are very clear that we should invest in various new technologies. Indeed, we have now invested up to £3 million on various alternatives to straightforward rail electrification. On hydrogen, for example, we have invested £750,000 in HydroFLEX, the UK’s first hydrogen-powered train. These trains may be particularly useful for freight in the future.

In light of the Government’s commitment to decarbonisation, when will the Great Western main line into Bristol Temple Meads and from Cardiff to Swansea and Didcot to Oxford now be electrified? What will be the additional costs of now doing so at a later date, arising from the earlier decision to defer electrification of these key parts of the Great Western main line?

The Great Western electrification programme is now substantially complete. However, I recognise that some parts of the network will still need to be electrified. As with all projects within the rail system, each one is looked at from the bottom up, and analysis is undertaken and development work done. If it meets value for money and is affordable, it will go into the RNEP system and therefore be done in due course.

When the Minister’s colleague Chris Heaton-Harris met the Rail All-Party Group, he was presented with a package costing less than £100 million which would enable 2 million train miles a year to be hauled by existing electric locomotives instead of diesel—the equivalent of decarbonising 80 to 100 million HGV miles a year. Has any progress been made with this?

I know that my honourable friend in the other place will be very grateful for the suggestions of the noble Lord about some of these quick wins—the fairly small, low-cost, infill electrification schemes that he refers to. We will of course look at these schemes, and they would be developed through the RNEP process.