Net zero by 2030: Can local rail help?

Earth seen from space

We need to act rapidly if we are to avoid the worst effects of the climate emergency. There can be no doubt that unless we change the way we do things, and change quickly, the consequences for life on Earth will be dire. The current UK government target is to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2050. Bristol is much more ambitious, aiming to achieve this 20 years earlier. Can local rail help us achieve net zero by 2030?

Transport emissions really matter

Rail projects are, historically, slow and costly to implement. Does it still make sense to spend time and money developing the local rail network? What can it deliver by 2030? Should we pause rail investment and spend the money on cheaper, quicker solutions such as active travel?

Transport emits nearly 30% of greenhouse gases. Walking and cycling can only go so far towards solving this problem. Rail is the greenest form of powered transport, producing a fraction of the carbon emissions of cars, buses and aeroplanes. Rail means green. And as electrification is expanded, rail gets even greener.

Graph showing of CO2 emissions of trains compared with flights, cars, buses and coaches and ships. Passenger flights produce 160g CO2 per passenger km; cars 143g, Buses and coaches 80g, maritime 61g whilst trains produce 33g.
Average GHG emissions by motorised mode of passenger transport, EU-27, 2014-2018 Image courtesy European Environment Agency

Local rail is not only a solution for local transport; it also connects people to long-distance train travel with its massive carbon savings. Every new local train station brings thousands of people within walking or wheeling distance of a green transport network that spans the world.

We make no apologies for repeating this statement from Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy, which we quoted in a previous post:

Although rail contributes less than 1% of the total UK annual greenhouse gas emissions it is in the unique position of currently being the only transport mode capable of moving both people and heavy goods using a zero-carbon solution. As a result, rail has a huge potential role to play in decarbonisation of the UK economy by providing reliable, green transport for goods and people.

FoSBR Plan for Rail

Improvements to local rail really can make a difference in the short term. FoSBR’s Plan for Rail shows how the rail network around Bristol, Bath and the West of England needs little alteration to provide a high quality public transport service for large parts of the region. The West of England Combined Authority’s 10-year rail delivery plan for 2020 to 2030 includes electrification, capacity enhancements, accessibility improvements and better interchange facilities. We’d like to see this accelerated, with new stations at Lockleaze, Ashton Gate, St Anne’s and half a dozen other places. This could be done within five years if there was the political will.

A family board a train with bags packed for a long journey
Local rail puts people within walking distance of a green travel network that spans the world. My family recently travelled by train from our local station, Montpelier, to Paris.

We absolutely need better walking and cycling infrastructure, and better bus services. But the core of a sustainable, integrated transport network is a high-quality rail service. Investment in local rail is a key path to net zero.

We have to find quicker ways to fund, approve and build new rail infrastructure. Let’s get on with it!

Main image: NASA




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