Destination Decarbonisation Day 1: Policy

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Alex Burrows, Director of Rail Alliance BCRRE provides a quick snapshot of today’s Destination Decarbonisation: Policy Day and answers a few more questions asked by the audience.

We have just delivered the first session of our second edition of the BCRRE Rail Alliance Destination Decarbonisation event that focused on policy.  This was a fascinating session with presentations from Mike Noakes (Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy), David Clarke (Railway Industry Association) and Sandeep Shingadia (Transport for the West Midlands) followed by a lively Q&A with the presenters along with Jamie Bend from the Department for Transport.

Destination Decarbonisation - Policy
Destination Decarbonisation – Policy

At the start I set out the case for innovation to drive rail decarbonisation and the respective roles and requirements to accelerate innovation if you want to see increased technological maturity.  You can see the presentations from Mike, David and Sandeep on our new website which launches next week.

We had many questions and I thought I would try to cover a few of them here in a blog post, so here goes:

Alex talked about sharing the risk. What are the panel’s thoughts on where an innovation could bring great benefit to the market but via greater social value than pure return on investment? (Lucy Prior)

This brought a lot of positive comment from the Panel including Mike (BEIS) who had mentioned the need to place a value on carbon in order to price the benefits of acting to decarbonise more equitably.

There must be greater consideration of the broader social and environmental objectives in play rather than relying solely on a pure economic analysis.  However, the fundamental issue is to ensure that there is greater openness to innovation and to build the demand for innovation through better procurement processes that specify the outcome sought allowing the supply industry to innovate.

One of the key challenges to how the rail sector is franchised and funded is how the money flows, who pays, and who benefits.  In the case of supporting the introduction of carbon free innovations, what funding mechanism changes are needed to allow introduction of green tech? (Steve Mills)

Jamie (DfT) referenced the funding available to support innovation in decarbonisation through Innovate UK particularly.  As I mentioned in my presentation, funding is a major barrier to innovation and was highlighted in the recent RIA Innovation Survey as a key issue blocking successful innovation.

The issue of funding innovation is compounded by the inherent risks in innovating – the scale of resource required to undertake research, development and testing; the risk of successfully developing a commercially viable product at the end of the work; and, the risk that procurement will not positively view innovative products and services.

This is an area we are actively investigating at BCRRE / Rail Alliance given the critical importance of this topic, particularly to SMEs.

We are pushing battery technology, do we consider the people of Bolivia and their lithium fields when we do this?  Are we happy for South American governments to be overthrown so we can power our mobile phones a bit longer? (Lee Pitts)

I don’t understand why hydrogen is repeatedly advocated as part of the solution where there are no real solutions to the issues it presents including how we will produce hydrogen sustainably. (Mark Knowles)

These two questions came in next to each other and neatly illustrate the challenge for developing an agreed technology roadmap to decarbonise the railway.  Both batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are parts of the solution to rail decarbonisation in support of complete rail electrification.  Both technologies are viable for rail; both are currently in development in order to optimise their application to the railway.

This is a complex topic.  The precious metals required for batteries are a finite resource – to my mind, if we have that resource then it should be used for the most positive impact, which would be powering public transport for 18 hours/day rather than sat in a private car.  However there is clearly a moral hazard that we cannot shy away from and my take away from this is to better understand the full context.

When it comes to hydrogen, we have the technology to produce ‘green’ hydrogen using electrolysis powered by renewable sources – so completely clean electricity producing hydrogen sustainably which then powers electric trains cleanly.  While a proportion of energy is ‘lost’ in making hydrogen in order to then make electricity again on-board a train, you still have the decarbonisation benefit plus no loss of resource in terms of utilising renewable energy for the hydrogen generation.

Both battery and hydrogen technologies are viable for rail and can plug the gaps in electrification in order to have a completely electric railway – for passengers at least.  We are looking at the freight context but that pre-empts later questions…!

I understand that electrification enables a move away from fossil fuels, but we can only achieve net zero if we work together with suppliers to ensure that the electricity is produced sustainably. How can the industry ensure that? (Heather)

Mike (BEIS) referred to existing Government policy and efforts to see the electricity grid see an increasing share from renewable sources, which is already well underway.  While it is not necessarily the role of the industry, as David (RIA) observed, it is certainly in our interest to see this happen.

How is the industry going to encourage modal shift from car travel, in light of Covid-19 and govt. advice to avoid public transport? This may not be a short term problem with second wave, new viruses etc. (Heather)

This is a great question that we did not get time for unfortunately.  However, I am hopeful that we will have something to say on this topic in the near future – watch this space!

At a CILT(UK) Arriva Bus conference they proved that the old Euro 5 & 6 buses fitted with Eminox Carbon Capture systems were more efficient and effective than electric and hydrogen, so why is diesel being demonised? (Neil Pointon)

A very good question and the Panel unanimously recognised that the transition to rail decarbonisation includes diesel and how we can make it cleaner to operate.  David (RIA) noted that diesel trains follow Euro 3b/4 standards at best.  Sandeep (TfWM) pointed out that we are seeing bus operators begin to commit to no more purchases of diesel buses as we see fleets transition to battery electric and hydrogen solution in place of diesel engines.

As someone who (until recently) spent a lot of time on the platforms at Birmingham New Street, I am perhaps more hard-line than many when it comes to getting diesel off the railway!  An electric railway is a cleaner railway that provides greater comfort, reliability and speed with lower operating costs.

Great presentations thanks. What are the Panel’s views on how to tackle the issue of embedded carbon costs when creating new infrastructure to reduce GHG emissions? (Lynn Armstrong)

Another question that could be the subject of a long debate in itself and one the Panel did not have time to get into.  The embedded carbon in infrastructure is a key issue alongside the rolling stock discussion.  I know that my BCRRE academic colleagues from our Centre of Excellence in Rail Decarbonisation are acutely aware of the need to look at rail infrastructure as well as rolling stock.  Destination Decarbonisation Day 2 focuses on research and will discuss this point.

How does the DfT foresee rail decarbonisation? (Philip Haigh)

Thanks everyone, great presentations. To decarbonise by 2050 there is a tremendous amount of work, research & projects needed. The longer we leave decisions the more difficult & costly it will be to deliver. How do we avoid ‘paralysis through analysis’? (Noel Dolphin)

A very reasonable pair of questions!  As I stated in my opening presentation when it comes to rail decarbonisation, we need a clear strategy, objectives and delivery programme.  Jamie (DfT) discussed their forthcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan and Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy that will hopefully give the supply chain a clear indication of the decarbonisation road map.

The research and development required to deliver the technologies required in a form suitable for rail application requires significant work and investment.  We will not see that investment unless there is a clear plan and commitment to see it through.  Decisions need to me made and stuck to – from the supply industry perspective we understand the need for evidence in order to justify that commitment to decisions, but we need to see those decisions being made rapidly.

A good session, thank you. Very interesting exposition on need and idea in innovation. How is the industry going to encourage/support/engage in new ideas from SMEs on decarbonisation from other sectors Edgar Goddard)

It is always nice to get good feedback and I completely agree with your point on the need to encourage SMEs from other sectors.  The session focused on Innovation on Thursday will hopefully tackle this question head on!

Thanks for the presentations, there is a clear route through franchising to incentivise passenger rail, but how can this be done for freight? (Rupert Stevens)

Where does rail freight sit in rail decarbonisation? There is a big focus on hydrogen and batteries but this is not an option for freight, will there be any electrification guarantees to shape procurement within freight? (Andrew Clare)

Freight is a key part of rail operations.  There can be no doubt that we need to see commitment to further electrification that can unlock a major increase in electric rail freight movements.  David (RIA) was clear that we need to get on with this and rightly so!

Is there a mailbox we can email if we need support with regards to Innovation and sustainable solutions? The support will be essential in implementation with the client i.e Network Rail. Our suppliers are doing excellent work to support designers, but beyond that is a challenge. (Abdul Rehman Savant)

Feel free to email me directly.  We are developing a plan to increase our direct innovation support and activities with industry partners as part of our role as the lead for Innovation in the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network.

How can we better make the wider case for a rolling programme of electrification, – including jobs and skills, links to clean air zones and health benefits, supply chain certainty, economies of scale, whole network benefits, driving down whole life costs etc… (Toby Rackliff)

David (RIA) gave a clear message about the importance of making the case for a rolling programme of electrification and the advantages in doing so.  There is no question that electrification is the best long-term solution and absolutely vital for routes with either high speed or high frequency services.    We all know the scale and breadth of benefits provided by electric trains and want to see these delivered as quickly as possible.

After we have transitioned to a carbon free railway, what will happen to the old diesel units? Will they be dumped in third world countries like we do with old diesel cars or will we be socially responsible? (Steve Mills)

David (RIA) observed that many are old and will likely be scrapped.  I should interject here and say that we at BCRRE are keen to make use of several decent trains with no further commercial use in order to provide trains to support future R&D activities!

I think there is an opportunity here to bring together both the Decarbonisation and Digitalisation agendas together through Railway Smart Grids as a solution to clean generation, distribution and operations. Would love to see this as a topic in future! (Heather)

That’s a great comment and one that should come up tomorrow in our Destination Decarbonisation session focused on Research!

Surely the challenge here is to create a decarbonised system? As distributed power is likely to be part of this landscape how can individual manufacturers (ie train builders) influence national players, such as the energy providers, who are working to different policies (Neil Bates)

Apart from the electrification and rolling stock focused aspects, can UK railways benefit from a whole-system and whole-life perspective of making maintenance strategies for the track infrastructure? Clearly, if the track quality is poor then the fuel consumption is higher. (Manu Sasidharan)

A focus on the systems-level is an extremely useful perspective to take.  Sandeep (TfWM) discussed the relevance of this approach when it comes to planning transport across a city region.  Likewise the rest of the Panel agreed that a systems approach is necessary in order to understand both the impacts and the interdependencies between the parts of the system.

Overall there is clearly huge interest in this topic – which I am delighted to see.  We will continue to focus on rail decarbonisation across our BCRRE and Rail Alliance activities so please do keep in touch and join us on Wednesday and Thursday for our Destination Decarbonisation Research and Innovation webinars.

Register your place for Research and Innovation here:


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