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30-year programme of rail electrification needs to start now, MPs say

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A 30-year rolling programme of electrification should be set out to cut carbon emissions from the train sector, MPs have said.

The Commons’ Transport Select Committee (TSC) said the government should do this “as a matter of priority” including publishing a long-term strategy for not only electrification, but also the use of batteries and hydrogen technology.

Running trains with electricity rather than diesel can cut CO2 emissions, boost journey times and reduce maintenance costs.

A broad programme of electrification was under way until 2017 when then transport secretary Chris Grayling scrapped it after years of delays and ballooning budgets.

The TSC said that without a reinstatement of the programme, the government will struggle to meet the legally binding target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a former minister’s pledge to remove all diesel trains from tracks by 2040.

It also said that electrification should begin “as soon as possible” rather than waiting for the start of the next control period in 2024.

Another option would be a system unveiled by Hitachi Rail last year that could see old diesel trains retrofitted with batteries so they can run on low-carbon energy, even on parts of the line that have not yet been electrified.

The TSC added that while alternatives such as this are unsuitable for freight and high-speed services due to their high energy demands, they should “play an important part” in long-term plans to cut carbon emissions.

It also called on Network Rail to provide greater transparency in order to ensure the taxpayer was getting the best value for money. In the past, uncertainty has cost the sector valuable time for planning and investment.

Transport committee chair Huw Merriman MP said: “Decarbonising rail, and making our trains cleaner and greener, will be a considerable challenge for us all.

“Transport accounts for the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions of any sector in the UK at 27 per cent. Trains in Great Britain still rely mainly on diesel traction – an estimated 62 per cent of the rail network is diesel-powered, compared with 38 per cent electrification. It will be some time before battery and hydrogen-powered trains are ready to depart the station, leaving electrification as the main option.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Deploying new hydrogen and battery technology trains and electrification – building on the near-700 single-track miles delivered in the last three years – will help us deliver cleaner, greener rail journeys as we strive towards net zero by 2050.

“We are fully committed to decarbonising the whole transport network, and our upcoming Transport Decarbonisation Plan will set out how we will achieve this.”

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