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.


East West Rail must be ‘electrified from day one’ says project promoter

To help England’s north, link it up – The Economist

To help England’s north, link it up” was published in The Economist’s Leaders section in the Dec 18th 2019 Edition. Focusing on Boris Johnson’s northern strategy, with a sub-headline “Public spending on transport in the north is barely half what it is in the south-east. That must change.”

The article begins by stating that Boris Johnson “relies on the north like no recent Tory leader” (The Economist, 2019). In relation to the recent Conservative victory at the December 2019 General Election, that saw the party take seats in the North that had been held by the Labour party for decades.

“Although it is closer to Manchester than Brighton is to London, the trains take 20 minutes longer and are a quarter as frequent. Inter-city connections in the north are a mess. By train, it is quicker to travel 250 miles (400km) to Newcastle from London than it is to get to Newcastle from Liverpool, just 120 miles away” (The Economist, 2019). This highlights the glaring inequality the North faces in comparison to the South. What this suggests is that along with HS2 investment in other parts of the rail infrastructure is needed.

With the exception of reopening of lines closed by the Beeching cuts of the 1960’s, electrification is one solution as diesel trains are heavier and involve more moving parts then electric trains thus they are more unreliable. However, another speedy decision as recommended by the economist does not involve rail at all. To please new conservative voters the Johnson government can focus on improving country bus services.

As the predicted costs of HS2 surpass £100 billion it is important that policymakers see the broader picture. The West Coast Mainline (WCML) is currently operating over capacity. Years of lack of investment and neglect in British rail infrastructure has created this problem. Building a high speed rail link may have been cheaper in years gone by under a nationalised rail system, however, that was the past.

Arguments regarding the capacity of the WCML have centred on whether a capacity issue exists. However, as the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE) states “Over the past 20 years rail passenger traffic has doubled, and it seems certain to further increase.”(IMECHE, 2019). Later going on to further state that “the alternative of increasing capacity by giving existing lines additional tracks would be hugely disruptive and probably cost about the same” (IMECHE, 2019).

The important thing the IMECHE article notes is that HS2 phase one is not just about a link from London to Birmingham, which the media and commentators often focus on. It is an integrated line in itself. HS2 will run on the existing railway and on HS2 phase one, the high-speed line from London Euston which will join the West Coast Main Line (WCML) near Lichfield with a spur to Birmingham (IMECHE, 2019). Once completed, only three of its 10 trains per hour from London will go to Birmingham (IMECHE, 2019). This will allow for more capacity out of London Euston.

The IMECHE then argues that the extra capacity released will provide Euston with 11,300 peak-hour commuter seats compared with the present 6,400 seats and that it will also provide more freight train paths (IMECH, 2019). Thus, the citymetric claim that there is not integration with the rest of the network, does not hold true.

In Conclusion

Linking the North up requires an improvement of bus and rail services, along with HS2. Increased platform lengths, new rolling stock, better disability provision, electrification and more integration with local bus services so the plusbus scheme can really come into its own in the North. These joined up efforts will aid everyone in the North and may even get some to ditch their cars.

Most of this will be expensive but for too long investment in public transport in the UK has been neglected (not just rail) meaning high costs come at once and will be higher then any incremental investment would have been over a period of time.

However, Policymakers should not shy away from this and should take this bold step to transform not just rail, but public transport services in across the country.

Be sure to check back in on the rail infrastructure and inequality section of my blog.