Can rail electrification save the planet?

£1.1bn is to be spent greening the UK rail network, bringing overhead power to two key routes.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The plan, announced by transport minister Lord Adonis today, will be managed by Network Rail and is the biggest such scheme in the UK since the early 1990s. It will involve stringing high-voltage overhead power lines along some 300 miles of track, including the mainline route from London to Swansea and the shorter, but equally busy, line between Manchester and Liverpool. 

And although reduced journey times are an obvious benefit (Swansea will be 19 mins closer to London as a result, woo-hoo) they are not being punted as the main reason for undertaking the work. Indeed, the service between London and South Wales is already a pretty fast one: London to Cardiff takes around two hours, by which time you might just have made it to Bristol on the M4.

No, the work is to be done in the name of saving the planet, or at least helping to. For although trains are already pretty eco-friendly by comparison with cars or aircraft, the diesel-electric trains currently running on the Great Western route are pale green at best.  They are ancient for starters, being the 125 ‘High Speed Trains’ that some of you may remember being advertised by Jimmy Saville back in the early 80s. When they were designed, no-one apart from a few climate scientists had even heard of global warming (or apparently of the need for functioning toilets, as regular modern-day passengers will attest).

By comparison, the carbon footprint (carbon wheelmark?) of modern high speed electric trains is way smaller. Although significantly, no-one today is saying by exactly how much. Mainly this is down to weight - they are much lighter, as a result of not having to lug about a huge V12 turbodiesel engine and the six tonnes of fuel needed to power it.  That means they need less energy to get them moving and keep them moving - while offering the incidental advantages of faster acceleration and braking, plus less wear and tear on the rails, to boot.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement – as sceptics will be quick to point out, most of the electricity used will be generated by gas or coal-fired power stations, not inherently much greener than the internal combustion engine they will replace. But as and when more renewable and nuclear power comes on stream, an electrified railway will be able to take advantage of it. 

So far so good, but what about the recession and the state of the public finances? Where’s the money coming from? Don’t worry: Network Rail – whose finances are off balance sheet - will borrow the dosh so it won’t be added to the Government borrowing tab. So that’s alright then.

Electric trains also cost as much as 35% less to run. A tasty carrot which will no doubt help the train operators muddle through the expected six years of delays and engineering works before the work is due to finish in 2017…


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