Clean transport advocates point out £30bn price tag for railway electrification is in the same ball park as budget for road building

The Treasury is facing further accusations that it is hampering the UK’s net zero transition, after reports emerged over the weekend that it has blocked plans to electrify Britain’s railways over cost concerns.

The Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy, a £30bn plan to decarbonise the UK’s railways over the next 30 years, has been shelved amid fears that the “cost cannot be justified” in the wake of the pandemic, according to the Telegraph.

The newspaper reported on Saturday that industry insiders had confirmed the strategy had been scrapped. BusinessGreen has contacted both the Treasury and the Department for Transport for comment.

The government has pledged to deliver a net zero emission railway network by 2050, but railway industry professionals have long warned this target is threatened by the sluggish pace of electrification upgrades for existing railways. 

Roughly 13,000 kilometres of railway across Britain need to be electrified by mid-century to meet the goal, yet just 179 kilometres of track were converted last year, according to figures published in the autumn by the Office of Rail and Road. Currently, just 42 per cent of the UK rail network is electrified, according to official data.

The costed strategy, published last September by Network Rail, had therefore set out plans to electrify 12,500 kilometres of railway over the next 30 years, while also rolling out hydrogen trains and battery-powered trains on 1,400 and 1,000 kilometres of track, respectively. 

The government had also pledged to remove all diesel-only trains from the network by 2040 as part of its Transport Decarbonisation Plan earlier this year, which vowed to deliver “sustained carbon reductions in rail” through investments in the electrification of railway track and the addition of new hydrogen and battery trains to the UK’s fleet.

The Treasury’s apparent decision to shelve the plan has therefore met with fiece criticism from clean transport groups which argue investment in low carbon transport is critical to delivering the UK’s broader net zero transition, and that electrifying railways is a complex, long-term task that needs to start now if it is to be complete by 2050, when the government is aiming to deliver a net zero rail system.

“It is seriously disturbing that [the Chancellor] Rishi Sunak does not understand the need to invest in low carbon transport but will spend billions on road building to make the climate crisis worse,” clean transport group Transport Action Network said in a statement.

The sentiment was echoed by John Whitelegg, professor of sustainable development at University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute and visiting professor of sustainable transport Transport at Liverpool John Moores University. “Not a surprise,” he wrote on Twitter. “The budget for road building is £34bn so spending more to make the climate emergency worse is better than spending less to reduce carbon.”

Solar rail social enterprise Riding Sunbeams also branded the move “absolutely disastrous”. “A terrible mistake which because of the long timescales in the rail sector means net zero climate targets will become impossible to meet,” it said.

Meanwhile, Louise Haigh MP, Shadow Transport Secretary, claimed the news demonstrated how the government had “no plan to deliver a rail network fit for this century”.

It is just the latest sign from the Treasury that it may harbour concerns over the level of investment needed to decarbonise the UK economy, with the Chancellor having been repeatedly accused of failing to step up to the plate with levels of funding and taxation policies required to meet climate targets. That is despite HMT unveiling its hotly-anticipated Net Zero Review earlier in the autumn, which concluded that “global action to mitigate climate change is essential to long-term UK prosperity”.

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