Improving the UK rail network, improves the Environment

Higher taxes on the most polluting forms of transport (such as car, air travel, and shipping) should be used to subsidise infrastructure and greener alternatives. It is important that a balance involving the economic cost of a tax increase, versus the damage to the environment is made a priority by policymakers.

That being said, it is clear to see some infrastructure improvements currently in progress on the UK rail network do not go far enough, with some even scrapped altogether (the HS2 Eastern Leg).

What needs to happen
The government needs to invest in UK rail infrastructure (new rolling stock, re-opening of branch lines closed by the Beeching axe of the 1960s) the modernisation/reduction of fares (this has begun and is a positive), and nationalisation of underperforming routes. Such policies if implemented effectively will have the effect of reducing car traffic, and in turn reducing emissions, particularly in more built-up areas. Good progress has and is being made. Some of this is current, some yet to be implemented.

The economic benefits of a joined-up rail infrastructure are extensive. The East West Rail estimates the area’s economic output could lose out by around £93 billion each year without major intervention to address the lack of suitable housing and poor east-west connectivity (East West Railway Company, 2021). What this points to is an increase in government spending is needed on these new infrastructure projects.

The current infrastructure additions
Some infrastructure additions do not go far enough. One of those arguably has to be the East-West Railway, which is currently in construction and is set to be completed in 2030. The line will not be electrified, which means diesel-powered trains will be operating on the line when it opens in 2030. This is illogical as the UK has committed to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

As the Bedford and Kempston MP Mohammad Yasin states “If he (the chancellor) is serious, this week of COP 26 is a good opportunity to commit to the new East-West Rail line being electrified from day one to avoid the need for diesel locomotives and the future costs of retrofitting”.

He has a point, the cost of electrifying admittedly older lines such as the great western mainline has been put at £2.8bn. This is not to mention that electric trains are more reliable and less damaging to track and other infrastructure.

Fitting gantries at a later date means line closures to fit components in tunnels and clearing vegetation to make way for gantries. The case for electrification whilst constructing the railway is sound. Making the investment now will prevent passenger delays and extensive costs later on.

The eastern leg of HS2 (phase 2b) has been scrapped, with HS2 trains now set to run on existing upgraded routes that are already at or near full capacity. To make matters worse they will be operating at nowhere near their designed speed on these lines.

Another setback to the project is the speed on the main HS2 line looks set to be reduced from 248mph to somewhere near 205mph, possibly even further. The frequency of the trains has also been stepped back (Badshah, 2023).

Short-termism and short-sightedness are plaguing large infrastructure projects like this. Governments often only see five years in the future. The reaction to increased home working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has led many to doubt whether rail capacity will ever increase to pre-pandemic levels.

This is a mistake, the UK population is projected to grow by 2.1 million over the ten years to mid-2030, with England’s population expected to increase more quickly then the other UK nations (Robards, 2022). The ability reliable rail travel has to take cars off the road is well documented (Timperley, 2019).

What is to be done?
Electrification should start as soon as possible across the whole of East-West rail. Other electrification projects should be considered on other lines across the UK network as a priority. Doing this now not only helps the UK meet climate targets but it will keep future costs down, and increases service reliability.