The Climate Change Committee Report 2022: is decarbonising UK rail on the right track?

Written by Freeths LLP Commercial Partner Tom Johnson, Real Estate Director Michael Bray, and Managing Associate Liam O’Flynn

Introduction

Following our recent article on the Climate Change Committee’s (“CCC”) 2022 Progress Report to Parliament, in this article we examine the CCC’s findings in relation to the rail industry.

What is particularly striking is that references in the report to the rail sector are relatively sparse, when compared with other transport sectors. This might reflect the relative environmental advantages that rail already currently enjoys over other transport modes. Or it might be that rail finds itself included within the broad category of “surface transport”, although the sections dealing with the latter seem to focus overwhelmingly on car and, to a lesser extent, truck use. This seems, at first blush, an oversight, given that rail (despite those undeniable environmental advantages) has a great deal to do in order to meet the government’s decarbonisation targets, chiefly the removal of all diesel trains from Great Britain’s railway network by 2040 (2035 in Scotland) and the achievement of a net zero rail network by 2050 or earlier, and increased use of rail freight.

Progress and key messages

However, on closer inspection, there is an overt recognition in the report that whilst much needs to be done in relation to the rail sector, progress to date has been limited. For example, the report recognises that:

  • a clear governmental policy framework is needed to decarbonise the rail sector and to meet the government’s stated objectives, alongside “a clear plan for how this will be achieved, including an ongoing programme of track electrification and consideration of the role for hydrogen, battery-electric, and hybrid trains”;
  • the public needs to be incentivised to shift to public transport, but that “action is now required to ensure this”;
  • a “comprehensive delivery plan” is needed, outlining which lines will be electrified and when, and providing guidance on investment in new technologies and procurement of zero-emissions trains; and
  • regarding modal shift to freight, the Department for Transport (“DfT”) intends to consult on a rail freight growth target.

It would seem to follow that there is currently no such policy framework, plan, delivery plan or programme in place, and no such action or consultation has been taken to date. Furthermore, the Integrated Rail Plan, published by DfT in November 2021, focused on connectivity and modal shift but was not accompanied by any form of environmental impact assessment. The CCC observes “[a]s such, it is not clear what impacts the changes to previous proposals will have on emissions”.

Conclusions

While it is easy to understand that the government is focusing on other priorities at the moment, there is a strong sense of being behind schedule. Given the lead times required to develop and implement policy, legislation and regulation, mobilise supply chains, upskill workforces, modify rolling stock, procure required infrastructure and update depots, and given the challenges which affect the three main rolling stock traction solutions on offer (electrification, batteries and hydrogen), this should be cause for concern. It will need to be rectified soon, so that financially viable projects can be developed, and so that the many interested funders can see sufficient clarity to justify investment in the sector.

The CCC suggests that, absent a rebuild of public confidence and recovery of passenger numbers, operators’ ability to decarbonise could be at risk. This is undoubtedly true, but since rail services have effectively been taken under public control since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, operators can do nothing in this regard without government direction and clear regulation. The need for clear government guidance is therefore acute.

The rail sector and indeed the nation awaits!