HomeFeatures Opinion - The Inside ViewCan UK rail make decarbonisation run on time?

Can UK rail make decarbonisation run on time?

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Peter Selway, Schneider Electric.

Peter Selway, rail marketing manager at Schneider Electric, considers options for decarbonising the railways and urges the industry to act now.

It is already widely acknowledged in the transport industry that, when it comes to sustainability, rail can have a significant impact on reducing our emissions. From the daily commute to goods haulage, decarbonised rail journeys could help many of us make our lives more sustainable.

Despite this, the UK rail sector has been slow to move to a more electrified, digitalised, and overall, more sustainable rail infrastructure. The funding and ambition to reach net zero is there – so what is missing? 

Due to ever growing passenger numbers, rail bodies have shied away from taking on large-scale projects of technological revolution and aimed, instead, to simply keep the wheels turning. But a reactive approach leads to downtime and service delays, which are a large part of current passenger frustrations.

With reinvigorated interest in going green, now is the time for the rail industry to mobilise the latest technologies. Here are three ways a proactive approach can benefit everyone. 

Maintaining network reliability

The UK rail network is sprawling and vast – while flagship projects like HS2 help make long distance journeys by rail appealing, long-distance services need to be supported by a reliable local railway at each arrival and departure station. The ‘spiderweb’ network of rail links in the UK, which covers a wide range of geographies and climates, has historically made it challenging and potentially too costly to bring sustainable rail to the wider country.  

All types and sizes of rail links can benefit from cost efficiencies using digital technologies, which reduce infrastructure maintenance in two main ways. Firstly, digitally connected rail infrastructure can reduce unplanned reactive maintenance by alerting maintenance teams to developing technical faults before they impact scheduled services.

In addition, rail networks can reduce planned downtime or redirection of services on the network because they no longer need to perform as much planned maintenance for routine inspections, which can now be carried out remotely. 

This is an advantage, especially for rail links where access to equipment is difficult – for example in urbanised areas with limited space beside the rails, or in remote areas where there is no nearby road access. Issues like these are common for signalling and points systems, which require specialist substations to manage power supply.

The development of more compact substations with reduced footprint, but greater digital connectivity, are beginning to demonstrate value in even the hardiest conditions such as the Scottish Highlands.  

 Reduced environmental impact

As well as maintenance, a more digitised infrastructure for rail could allow for better overall monitoring and optimisation of energy use. Pursuing efficiencies can also be the road to reducing emissions, provided this is done in tandem with introducing a greater share of renewable energy to run electrified transport. We have already seen, in energy generation, that renewables are now more plentiful and more affordable that non-renewable sources of energy. This has delivered a boom in decarbonisation of home infrastructure, from the upcoming ban of gas boilers in new build homes to solar panels becoming a more common sight on British roofs. 

The growth in a reliable supply of renewable energy gives countries a chance to electrify their railways and decarbonise the supply, while maintaining service reliability. As the renewables sector continues to grow, both here in the UK and more globally, energy generation is also becoming more decentralised. While this should lead to better overall resilience in supply, there will still be a challenge in managing load across such a complex distributed network of resources. Every part of the energy network, including major users such as rail networks, must play its part by digitising infrastructure so that energy supply can be better managed, and usage optimised.   

The equipment along the rails can also be made greener, such as by eradicating the use of greenhouse gas SF6 in switchgear. Another example is the signalling system, where high eight-fold reductions in carbon can be made by embracing more compact equipment in situations where traditional models would not be cost effective.

The urban future

Although the recent COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the urban housing market, global urbanisation is still a slow but sure global megatrend. The railway can be the vanguard for a green transport revolution – the time to act is now. 

Over the next few decades, we can expect forms of public transport to grow even further as we carve out the city of the future. Many companies are already experimenting with smart homes and smart buildings as the way we utilise these spaces changes. As part of a complex power system, electric transport also needs to be considered alongside buildings infrastructure in order to help us reach our net zero goals.  

Rail also has its part to play in supporting wider EV adoption, which is now picking up speed. In the shorter and mid-term, affordable and convenient ‘green’ rail could reduce some longer car journeys, which are currently powered by traditional fuels, helping to partly bridge the gap until EVs become the default purchase option for UK consumers and the 2030 petrol and diesel car ban comes into effect. 

With financial opportunity and political pressure for rail to ‘go green’ still increasing, the 2020s are set to be a decade defined by digital and sustainable innovation. But, to run on the ambitious timetable set out for the UK in our climate agreements, the key will be to embrace green revolutions both on the network and the wider national energy infrastructure. 

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