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“Climate change really hits home when you come face-to-face with the glaciers on Mont Blanc,” says Siemens Mobility CEO William Wilson. “You read about how quickly they have been retreating. But when you’re actually up there looking at them, you see the marks from where they’ve gone back, year-by-year. They’re retreating at the fastest rate that’s ever been known and it’s all because everything is heating up.”
When he speaks to Holyrood, Wilson is reinvigorated following a trekking trip in the French Alps and preparing to catch the overnight sleeper train to Glasgow for COP26. Having come from a military background, it is no surprise that he dedicates much of his leisure time to outdoor pursuits.
Wilson speaks of having caught the Aiguille du Midi cable car, renowned for holding the world record for the highest vertical ascent, during his break. Once the cable car had reached the uppermost terrace of the Aiguille du Midi, he stepped into “a glass box with a glass floor on top of a mountain, where you step in, have your photograph taken and can see straight down”.
While this experience would leave a lasting impact on anybody, Wilson explains that it was the sheer visible evidence of global warming that left a far more frightening impression. It is this perspective, he says, that reinforces his belief that we must move as quickly as possible to reduce emissions, and that this means not merely hitting but outperforming our targets wherever possible.
According to statistics published by Transport Scotland in February, transport accounted for 36 per cent of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Much has quite rightly been made of the country’s leadership in moving to renewable sources of electricity production. Provisional Scottish Government figures published at the end of September show that renewables accounted for 95.9 per cent of electricity consumption in Scotland in 2020. However, to reach net zero by 2045, decarbonisation of transport by 2035 has been identified as a key priority and enshrined in law.
As Wilson highlights, more than half of carbon emissions from transport in Scotland are accounted for by private road vehicles, reinforcing the need to drastically enhance more efficient mass transit alternatives.
Increased reliance on rail will play a decisive role in whether Scotland meets or misses its targets and, with diesel trains still operating on significant stretches of the national network, upgrading infrastructure and rolling stock is also vital. Indeed, the Scottish Government has identified 1,800 single track kilometres of the network to be electrified in order to meet its targets. New greener trains are to be introduced on the West Highland lines, the Far North and Kyle of Lochalsh lines, and the Stranraer line.
Siemens Mobility argues that, while the government is to be applauded for its commitment to decarbonising transport at a faster rate than the rest of the UK, it can and should be even more ambitious. The company has identified a further four major routes that are currently operating diesel trains where a greener alternative should be introduced, namely the Fife Circle, Borders Railway, Highland Mainline and Aberdeen Mainline.
Wilson says more needs to be done to get commuters out of their cars
“The focus has very much been on electric and high speed trains, but they’re not suitable for everything,” says Wilson. “Is the Highland Mainline ever going to be electrified? There could be prohibitive practical challenges that mean a business case isn’t clear. We need alternatives and those really shouldn’t be ‘cleaner’ diesels.
“The first solution was using a battery option, but that is more suitable for the last 20-30 miles at the end of electrified routes or for very short gaps as part of a discontinuous electrification scheme. In cases such as the Highland Mainline, the weight of the battery itself would be a significant factor in train performance. You have really got to move forward with something like hydrogen.”
Wilson acknowledges that the production of green hydrogen and the use of fuel cell hydrogen technology in rail are both in their infancy. He says Siemens Mobility have been having extensive internal discussions as to whether this presents a viable alternative and a route forward.
“The answer is yes,” he says. “We’re launching our first hydrogen train in Bavaria this December. It doesn’t have a huge distance to travel, but it’s looking very, very favourable. The train can travel up to speeds of 160km/h, has similar acceleration to electric, can be refuelled in 15 minutes the same as diesel, and has a hydrogen only range of up 600 kilometres.”
While the scale of upgrading and modernising stock will require substantial investment and present significant challenges, arguably one of the biggest challenges is in making sustainable public transport the habitual choice for the vast majority of the population.
On a national level, one of the features of COP26 that attracted significant debate was the introduction of the COP26 travel pass: an integrated single ticket for use on any bus, tram, subway or ScotRail train for travel to and from conference venues. The permanent introduction of a similar system is one of the factors Wilson argues would help encourage people to move away from their private vehicles and take up multi-modal transport.
“There are great innovations happening across Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling and elsewhere, but they’re still not enough to get people out of their cars,” he says. “We’ve got to ask: why would somebody get out of their car and get onto a train or a bus? There are several factors, one of which is cost. Train fares in the UK could certainly be made more appealing.
“Another factor is actually about time and convenience. A person can jump in their car and know roughly how long it will take them to commute into Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen. They have a fair idea of where they might be able to park and how much that will cost.
“Contrast that with coming out of your front door, walking to a bus stop, not knowing whether you use coins, contactless or an alternative method, then taking a train into the city centre and another bus or tram. It really is disjointed. How do you link all that up?”
There are a range of solutions, says Wilson, one of which is striving for a system where a commuter buys one ticket that covers their entire journey, regardless of whether that may include the bus, train, tram, water taxi or cycle hire.
Another is investing in live information services that tell passengers the most efficient mode of getting from A to B, and which specific carriages on any given train might have standing room, sitting room, or no room at all. The ultimate goal, he says, is to develop a seamless alternative to taking the car.
“The biggest challenge that MSPs have got,” says Wilson, “is actually how to get this modal shift. You have to split the country into two: those that live in cities and conurbations with access to integrated public transport systems, and those who don’t. Someone who lives in Pitlochry is never going to use the train as opposed to their car when they want to go 20 miles in their local region. That’s where electric vehicles or enhanced bus services come in.”
Much of the discussion around decarbonising transport is justifiably directed towards passengers. Here, politicians play a key role through legislation, public investment, cooperation with private sector partners, and building consensus with the wider population. Yet freight is also a major part of the equation when it comes to reducing emissions.
Indeed, the transfer of long-distance freight from road to rail has regularly been cited as one of the arguments in favour of building high speed rail networks across Europe. This includes the UK, where HS2 is intended to free up capacity for such a transition. However, Wilson argues that here too governments must take a holistic view of all possible sustainable options.
“People say we’ll just put freight on trains, but that isn’t a catch-all solution,” he says. “If you’re distributing like Amazon, you want to pack a whole lot of specialised goods into large lorries to take them to localised distribution centres.
“One potential solution is e-highways, essentially a modern version of the trolley bus concept, but for freight. We put a catenary over a motorway and have bi-mode HGVs that take their power from it. The HGVs also have the cleanest possible type of diesel engine to power them when the pantograph drops for the shorter parts of the journey. It stacks up when you look at decarbonisation, is up and running in Sweden and Denmark, and there is a strong case that it would make sense across the central belt and up to Aberdeen.”
Whichever solutions are adopted, Wilson is keen that the route map to 2035 is crystallised as a matter of urgency. The timeline for developing and implementing many of these wide-scale changes, he says, can be from five to 10 years.
“It’s about transport as one, and whatever policies the Scottish Government decides to adopt, let’s get them all published. Once we actually have something that is robust, we can then address all these challenges and move forward with the right solutions.”
This article was sponsored by Siemens Mobility