European Railways Eye Plans for More Environmentally Friendly Fuel Sources

The automobile frequently comes in for criticism for its role in environmental pollution, not just in contributing to Co2 levels but more often for the output of carcinogenic particulate matter emissions, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, all of which contribute to an estimated 29,000 deaths in the U.K., according to Public Health England, 200,000 in the U.S. and some 4.2 million globally.
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Concerns have driven a rapid migration from previously very popular diesel engines to petrol and hybrid in Europe. Up to now, little or no attention has been given to that other major component of the transport industry: rail.

Electrification in the EEA

At the point of use, 53% of the rail network in the 33 countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) are electrified, but concentrations vary, with some, like France, in excess of 80% and others only 40% electrified (as in the U.K.). Electrified lines create no pollution, at least in stations and for people living near rail lines, but diesel emissions can be unacceptably high within large, enclosed terminus stations.
London’s Paddington station (one of four major terminus stations serving London) serves 38 million passengers a year, according to a report by Railway Technology, yet it is only the seventh-busiest station in the U.K. Up to 70% of the trains using the station are powered by diesel; as a result, Paddington experiences peak emission far exceeding European recommendations.
For some bizarre reason, which probably has everything to do with political expediency, U.K. railway stations are not required to comply with air quality standards imposed by the E.U., despite the fact that 8 million passengers pass through them every day. This exemption may have something to do with the fact British rolling stock has a mean age of 18 years, meaning a sizable portion was deployed 11 years before E.U. emissions regulations Stage 111A/B, most recently updated in 2012, took effect, and is therefore exempt.

A Carrot-and-Stick Approach

Now many would argue rail, along with waterways, are some of the most environmentally friendly forms of transport we have. The report states they were the only modes that recorded an absolute decrease in energy consumption between 1990 and 2013 within the 33 member countries of the EEA.
Even so, change has been slow and the British government is not alone in seeking a carrot-and-stick approach to encouraging faster innovation and greater investment.
According to The Telegraph, article Britain’s Rail Minister Jo Johnson will announce a plan to drastically cut pollution on Britain’s rail network. Citing the switch automotive is making from diesel to cleaner fuels, the minister set an ambitious target of removing all diesel trains from U.K. tracks by 2040 and in their place he signaled his ambition to see a wave of environmentally friendly hydrogen trains. The first of those trains is expected to be trialed as early as 2021, while battery trains are already undergoing trials in the U.K.

Elsewhere in Europe

Germany has already signed a deal with France’s Alstom, Europe’s leader in hydrogen train technology to operate 14 zero-emission hydrogen trains in Lower Saxony, Germany. According to the Times, the Coradia iLint train can cover up to 620 miles at a time and reach a maximum speed of 87 mph.
Users are raising concerns about who is going to pay for the U.K. to upgrade from diesel to battery and hydrogen locomotives. Cost aside, this clearly represents a massive investment opportunity.

Setting the Table

With a government framework in place, manufacturers would be more willing to invest in facilities within the U.K. to meet the long-term upgrade demand; without clear guidelines, the industry is more likely to buy piecemeal from foreign manufacturers.
British governments of all colors have a habit of setting targets or voicing aspirations and then stepping back and letting the market get on with it. They seem not to learn that investors need a framework and timeframe to give them the confidence to invest.
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