Total electrification of the railways was played down by Rail Minister Jo Johnson, who encouraged the use of bi-mode trains, which can switch from electric to diesel mid-journey.

The industry is also developing alternative fuel trains, using battery and hydrogen power.

“I would like to see us take all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040,” Johnson said. “If that seems like an ambitious goal – it should be and I make no apology for that.”

Transport overtook the power industry as the UK’s most emitting sector in 2016. The Government has sought to address the worsening situation, announcing proposals to ban all new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040.

But efforts will also need to be taken in the rail sector. An estimated 29% of Britain’s current train fleet is run solely on diesel fuel, and the carbon footprint of rail has grown by one-third since 1999.

The Government was accused of “betraying” rail passengers last summer after scrapping plans to electrify three rail lines on the Midland Main Line, Great Western Main Line and in the Lake District.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said at the time that the Government would instead introduce bi-mode trains with more seats and better on-board facilities.

Alternative options

Johnson said yesterday that he would like to see hydrogen train trials on the UK railway “as soon as possible”.

“Hydrogen offers an affordable – and potentially much cleaner – alternative to diesel,” he said. “And the technology has developed fast in recent years.”

Northern is exploring the possibility of deploying alternative-fuel trains, such as battery or hydrogen-powered units, on the route by 2021.

The UK could take note from the growing number of low-carbon rail developments taking place abroad. A batch of zero-emission trains that combine regenerative electrification technology with renewable diesel have been scheduled for commercialisation for 2025, after a pan-European passenger transport firm signed a €170m contract to manufacture the vehicles in the Netherlands.

Late last year, the CRRC Corporation unveiled a 100% electric, self-driving train that journeys on virtual tracks. Operating in select streets of Zhuzhou in the Chinese Province of Hunan, the Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit can transport up to 300 passengers, reaching speeds of around 43mph.

Elsewhere, Indian Railways launched its first train fitted with rooftop solar panels. Operating across Delhi, the trains will have fans, lighting and display systems powered by renewables in a move that could save more than 5,500 gallons of diesel annually. 

George Ogleby

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