From new ways of powering trains such as electrification and solar power to diesel-free worksites and sustainable rail stations, Britain’s railways could play a major role in boosting the UK’s goal of becoming zero-carbon by 2050, according to a new report for the Department of Transport.

A report by the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Task Force and rail body RSSB revealed that railways, as a naturally low-carbon transport mode, are responsible for less than 2.5% of total transport emissions and about 0.6% of the UK’s total emissions.

The task force has now urged the government to go further to decarbonise the railway network by implementing more sustainable strategies.

With the aim to move UK rail to the lowest carbon energy base by 2040 and for Britain to be net carbon zero by 2050, the task force believes the government must start identifying details such as investment and timescales over the next 30 years. These must encompass the right structures, frameworks and policies enabled by a research and development programme.

Outlining what needs to be done, the report said that over 3,000 carriages used in diesel passenger trains will need to be replaced in the near future as they won’t be workable anymore. The most economic option would be electrification of key routes – in particular for the fast intercity trains.

Furthermore, 2,400 vehicles could use other low-carbon options such as hydrogen and battery technology.

Rail Minister Andrew Jones said: “Since 2010 operators have ordered 7,800 new greener carriages, we have provided £4.5m of funding for innovative projects focused on tackling decarbonisation, and we are investing £48bn to modernise the rail network, enabling cleaner, more efficient journeys.

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“We now have practical next steps which will see the rail industry playing its full part, as we push towards the UK’s target of greenhouse gas emissions being net zero by 2050,” Jones said.

The report also said that apart from passenger trains, further work must be done to understand the potential for freight decarbonisation. It found that freight corridors face a massive challenge where sustainability is concerned as there are currently no workable alternatives to diesel, aside from full electrification.

Stressing on the importance of reducing carbon emissions, RSSB’s head of sustainable development, Anthony Perret, said: “Climate change is non-negotiable, and poses unavoidable questions about how we want to live, let alone how we organise our economies and power our transport systems.

“By focussing on the 2050 target, the rail industry is making the first major step to playing its part. Any future industry structure must enable and incentivise innovation and investment in significant decarbonisation to make this a reality,” Perret said.