Decarbonising the Railways in the UK – RSSB Final Report

Written on the 10th September, 2019

The Report to UK Ministers  from the Rail Decarbonisation Task Force will feature strongly in the “From Diesel to Zero” Trains Conference which will be held in Manchester on 26 September.   The Conference is being organised by European Policy Solutions with the support of CMB Revolve Technologies.  The Task Force Report was supported by the Railway Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) and the RSSB has agreed to speak at the Conference.   The Task Force also commissioned reports on issues such as Traction and Infrastructure. Tom Houghton (E4tech) and Stephen Kent (BCRRE) will examine these issues at the Conference.

In 2018, the UK Government made a commitment to decarbonise the UK Rail Network and set the target of “no diesel only passenger trains by 2040.” The Government then asked the UK Rail Industry to report back on the way in which decarbonisation could be achieved.   A Decarbonisation Task Force  was set up with the support of the RSSB and it published its Final Report in July 2019.  Earlier this year, the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and this was passed into UK law in June this year.  The Task Force also looked at the implications of this policy change.  It  concluded that “the rail industry, including government, should support the target of net zero carbon by 2050.”

The Task Force assessed the scale of the problem and estimated that “there are, or shortly will be, about 3,000-3,300 diesel passenger vehicles that will need to be replaced, re-engined or converted to decarbonise the railway. It should be possible to replace in excess of 2,400 vehicles with alternative low-carbon traction options such as hydrogen and battery trains. This will leave about 500-900 high speed vehicles where the most cost-effective option is likely to be to electrify the routes on which they run.” In terms of electrification – 42% of the network has been electrified but over 80% of journeys per kilometre use trains operating on electrified lines. 

The Report also stated that  “the whole rail industry has responsibility to contribute to net zero carbon
in a cost-effective manner.”  The UK Government’s role I see as pivotal and  the Government “should set out clear, consistent and enabling policies to achieve this goal.”

The Policy should

  • lay down a suitable mix of zero-carbon traction technologies – currently battery, hydrogen and electrification – should be developed
  • include a long-term target and outline how this will be delivered through public procurement and specification
  • be enabling, and not prescriptive
  • allow the industry to maximise its ability to innovate and deliver against the agreed target in the most cost-effective manner

The Task Force called for the construction of a series of five year Research and Development Programmes “to reduce technical and implementation uncertainties.” This would include  increasing the capabilities of battery and hydrogen trains, including the development of appropriate infrastructure and reducing whole system costs

The UK Rail Industry is complex and the Task Force suggests that each component of the industry (Network Rail, Train Operating Companies etc.) develops a Delivery Plan. The Williams Review looking at the structure of UK rail industry may simplify the system but Delivery Plans need to be produced.

The Report stresses that there  “should be plans to implement alternative zero or low carbon solutions, where we know electrification will never be the lowest whole life carbon and cost option.”  The alternative  options introduced should be  “primarily battery and hydrogen, where their performance capabilities meet journey requirements.”  It concluded  that on less intensively used routes  electrification may not be the best option, The zero emission option in this category is “currently most likely to be hydrogen but also possibly battery, (and these options) should be put in place as rolling stock is replaced.”

The Report seemed less enthusiastic about hydrogen and battery electric in middle distance journeys at 100 MPH capability or for longer journeys with a capability of 125 MPH but thought that both energy sources could be used on electric trains which needed “short hops off wire.”  However, the Research and Development Programmes could make hydrogen and battery electric options more attractive.

The Report also looked at the issue of freight.  The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission has recommended a cross modal analysis of the long term option for rail freight’s transition to zero emissions.  There are currently 850 freight locomotives in regular service. The Task Force concluded that “other than electrification there are no obvious technical alternatives to diesel for freight, assuming that both engine and fuel are to be accommodated within the same vehicle. Were it possible to tow a fuel car adjacent to the locomotive in an operationally acceptable configuration and length, hydrogen might be useable.”

The Task Force Report offers great opportunities for the development of zero emission trains and the “From Diesel to Zero” Conference will bring participants up to date with the current development of these trains while looking at the broader infrastructure issues associated with zero emission trains.

Further details and a Booking Form for the Conference can be found at








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