Green for Go: How the rail industry in Scotland can meet the challenges of the climate crisis
Last year, following heavy summer rainfall, three men lost their lives when a train derailed a few miles outside of Stonehaven.
Train driver Brett McCullough, 45, conductor Donald Dinnie, 58, and passenger Christopher Stuchbury, 62, were killed when the Aberdeen to Glasgow service hit debris on the track.
Pictures of the crash were dramatic and suggested that had the train not been relatively quiet due to the pandemic – there were only nine people on board at the time – the number of casualties could have been much higher.
An interim report published earlier this year by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) said the train had hit debris washed onto the track as it returned to Stonehaven following an earlier landslide further down the line.
Even though it was August and the height of summer, more than 50mm of rain had fallen in the hours before the accident – almost three-quarters of the average monthly rainfall for the area. It was a worrying illustration of our changing weather. Indeed, within a month of the derailment, Network Rail published an initial report, saying the impact of climate change was “accelerating faster than our assumptions”.
Once regarded as a problem that future generations would have to contend with, the effects of climate change are already with us today and are only going to get more dramatic in the years to come.
Yet while the rail industry has a role in anticipating the future impact of climate change on the network, it must also play its part in helping reduce overall emissions to help limit the warming of the planet.
The industry says it’s on track to decarbonise passenger rail services by 2035. Transport Scotland’s Rail Services Decarbonisation Plan sets out a pathway to that, largely through electrification and the adoption of new technologies such as hydrogen and battery-powered trains.
According to ScotRail, around 200 miles of the network was electrified between 2014 and 2019, allowing for the use of Class 385 electric trains which collectively cut emissions by over 10,000 tonnes a year – the equivalent of taking 2,238 cars off the road. At present, more than three-quarters of passenger rail journeys and 45 per cent of freight journeys are on electrified parts of the network.
Hydrogen and battery-powered trains may be a bit further down the line, although services powered by hydrogen fuel cells – where chemical energy is converted into electrical energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen – are already a feature of the network in countries such as Germany.
However, the big challenge for the rail industry in Scotland will be less about reducing its own emissions and more about cutting overall transport-related CO2 by encouraging travellers to opt for the train, the so-called modal shift.
Indeed, while 37 per cent of Scotland’s emissions come from transport, only a small amount comes from trains, compared with 40 per cent for cars.
“Transport is the biggest emitter of carbon emissions, but rail is only one per cent of that,” says Alex Hynes, managing director of ScotRail Alliance. “Rail is the most sustainable way to travel, both for passengers and freight. So, the way we really need to turn the dial is to deliver modal shift. Nevertheless, we still have to decarbonise our own operations.”
Hynes, who based himself at Glasgow Central during COP26, says there was a real excitement around the future of the railway, with high-profile visitors to the station including Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, after he was criticised for taking a private jet back to London at the start of the conference.
“We need to make sure that as we decarbonise, we make it a bigger and better railway so that we can attract people out of their cars. The Scottish Government is one of the few governments in the world who have signed up to a reduction in car use and I think there will be some carrot and some stick required to change behaviour.”
Hynes says part of the “stick” approach is likely to be about making town centres more “car unfriendly”. He points to comments made by Michael Matheson, the transport secretary, who told delegates at COP26 that streets will need to be redesigned “to make the car the outsider” if Scotland is to meet its overall carbon reduction targets.
But if there’s a challenge in getting commuters out of their cars and onto the train, the problem is worse for those travelling long distances within the UK by plane. At the time of writing, a return train ticket from Edinburgh to London for the following week cost around £130, while a return flight was less than half the price at £60.
It makes Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to cut air passenger duty (APD) on domestic flights – while raising it for long-haul services – all the more frustrating for those who want travellers to choose rail before air. It means that as of April 2023, passengers will pay £6.50 in tax on a flight within the UK, down from £13.
Transform Scotland, a charity which campaigns for sustainable travel, says more needs to be done to promote the switch from air to rail for those travelling between Scotland and England. It has called on government to promote rail travel as the best way to get around the UK.
“It’s well known that the train is better than the plane for protecting the climate, but much work is still required to communicate the price, speed and reliability benefits of rail over air for Anglo-Scottish trips,” says Transform Scotland director Colin Howden.
“Part of that job is for the rail industry itself. But we also need to see action from the Scottish Government in shifting domestic travel from air to rail. Its new aviation strategy proposals actually encourage an increase in domestic flights and fail to capitalise on the shift towards rail travel that is already underway for routes between central Scotland and London.
“Now is also the time for the Scottish Government to show leadership by banning its own civil servants from flying to London from the central belt. During COP26, we’ve seen too many leaders flying in and out of Scotland for trips that could easily be made by train.”
While critics argue there is still not enough being done to promote sustainable travel, not to mention walking and cycling, there is at least growing international recognition of the need to decarbonise transport.
During COP26, the Scottish Government signed a series of international agreements on decarbonisation of transport, mostly relating to the promotion of electric vehicles.
But to properly reduce emissions, we will not only need to encourage the rollout of electric vehicles, but convince motorists to leave the car behind altogether and opt from greener forms of transport, especially trains.
The UK Government recently published its Union Connectivity Review, a long-awaited piece of work that aims to identify better ways of linking the various countries of the UK.
Led by Sir Peter Hendry, the chair of Network Rail, the review team had identified a number of “key concerns”, including the need for better connections between the HS2 rail line and Scotland; higher capacity and faster journey times between Scotland and England via the East Coast Main Line and the A1; better connections on the A75 from the ferry port at Cairnryan to the M6 corridor, which is particularly important for freight; and better flight connections between the north of Scotland and England.
Central to the UK future transport mix will be high speed rail. The UK’s second stretch of high-speed rail (HS2) is currently under construction between London and the West Midlands, where it will connect with the existing West Coast Main Line, taking passengers on to cities including Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.
The project is not expected to be completed until 2029 at the earliest, with a second phase expected to link Birmingham with Crewe (phase 2a). The UK government recently scrapped the eastern leg to Leeds (phase 2b), claiming similar improvements can be delivered sooner through local service upgrades.
Transport Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, says it’s “making the case” for Scotland to be included in high speed rail, but based on the current timetable for delivery, there are concerns about being left behind. Last year, a Transport Scotland official warned that even with the benefit of increased journey times resulting from phase 2, the travel time between Edinburgh and London would still fall well short of the three-hour goal needed to convince passengers to opt for rail over air travel.
But Hynes says HS2 will still deliver a benefit to Scottish passengers by reducing overall journey times for cross-border services.
During COP26, battery-powered trains operated between Glasgow Central and Barrhead. While those vehicles were only on loan during the summit, Hynes says battery-powered trains are likely to play a part in the years to come, particularly on parts of the network that aren’t electrified.
“The best way to decarbonise your railway is to electrify it,” he says. “Electric railways are cheaper to operate, they’re most efficient, more reliable. We are intending to continue to electrify most routes in Scotland.
“There will be bits of the network where we never have a business case for electrification because the frequencies just don’t justify it. What we would do then is use alternative technologies. We’re not far off having hydrogen trains, and it’s likely they would be used in the far north.”
Just like many of us will opt for hybrid vehicles before going fully electric in the years ahead, Hynes says train journeys within Scotland could also be a mix.
“We might electrify some of the railway in Fife, for example, but not do the Forth Bridge yet. The train would use electricity in Fife and then use the battery on those parts of the network that aren’t electrified, like the bridge. It would then go back to electric at Haymarket. That can help manage the transition. We might decide to do the expensive electrification bit, or the technically tricky electrification, later. Battery-electric trains allow us to decarbonise before we’ve put wires up everywhere.”