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UK Government unveils plan to decarbonise transport system – key rail sector points to note

  • United Kingdom
  • Transport - Rail


On 14 July 2021, the UK Government published its plan to decarbonise the entire transport system entitled Decarbonising transport: a better, greener Britain(the “Plan”).

The Plan is comprehensive, and details the UK Government’s commitments and actions that will enable it to achieve its ambitious legally binding target of full decarbonisation across all modes of domestic passenger and freight travel by 2050. According to UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, the Plan is the first of its kind in the world.

The Plan is the latest in a line of UK Government publications and pledges that focus (at least in part) on decarbonising rail transportation in Britain. These include the commitment under the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail1 for railways to drive the UK Government’s ambition for the UK to become a world leader in clean, green transport and the UK Government’s Rail Environment Policy Statement2 , which was published on the same day as the Plan. These sit alongside numerous reports and recommendations on the topic of decarbonisation, including the House of Commons Transport Committee’s report entitled “Trains fit for the future?”3 and Network Rail’s “Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy”4.

The Plan - Key rail sector points to note 

Key rail sector commitments by the UK Government detailed in the Plan include:

  • a restatement of the UK Government’s legally binding commitment to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from trains by 2050 and to remove all diesel-only trains from the network by 2040 – the Plan indicates that electrification should be the main method of decarbonising the network, supported by hydrogen and battery power. It is anticipated that Great British Railways5 will be responsible for identifying the most appropriate use of technology for each part of the network, delivering the necessary infrastructure and commissioning the right train services to ensure that the 2050 net-zero commitment is met;
  • delivering a programme of electrification which will be guided by Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy – the UK Government is expected to shortly announce further details of electrification projects, and has stated that it is committed to making sure that the lessons of previous electrification schemes are learned and that future projects deliver value for money;
  • supporting the development and use of battery and hydrogen-powered trains, along with the use of technology to clean up existing diesel trains prior to their retirement from the network – in the Plan, the UK Government stresses that it will always deploy the most suitable solution for each part of the network. The Plan cites the UK Department for Transport’s “First of a Kind” competitions, which have provided almost £3 million of funding to developing new traction technologies. A further £9 million of funding has been awarded by the Department for Transport as part of this year’s “First of a Kind” competition, which partly focussed on funding projects that facilitate “low emissions and a greener railway”6;
  • increasing capacity on the rail network in order to meet predicted rises in passenger and freight demand and to support large-scale shifts to rail travel away from road and air travel – the Plan cites HS2 as a project that will free up train paths and platforms to make way for additional local, cross-country, commuter and freight services;
  • working with the rail industry to modernise ticketing and retail so as to promote a shift to rail travel, as well as providing cleaner and greener transport journeys – the Plan restates the UK Government’s commitment to ticketing reform as set out in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail. This includes increased flexible pricing on long distance routes, and more contactless ticketing on shorter-distance routes7;
  • improving rail journey connectivity with other methods of transport including active transport – the Plan includes a commitment by the UK Government to spend a further £2 million throughout 2021/22 on improving bicycle access to stations and increasing sustainable journeys through the installation of cycle racks, security systems, ramps and cycle paths through the Cycle Rail Scheme. It is hoped that the use of Local Transport Plans and the integration of e-ticketing with busses will help to further join up rail with other transport modes/services;
  • introducing a growth target for rail freight – the UK Government uses the Plan to restate its commitment to introduce a rail freight growth target, as set out in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail; and
  • incentivising the early take up of low carbon traction specifically in relation to freight services – the Plan states that “infill” electrification projects will be used to fill-in electrification gaps on lines to key ports and terminals, so as to enable electric freight trains to run on these routes. The Plan also says that the UK Government will work with industry to develop policy interventions that should help rail freight companies to confidently invest in replacing current diesel units, such as interventions that ensure rail freight maintains its competitiveness with road freight.


The Plan comes at a time of both challenge and change for the British railway industry. Recovery from the fall in demand and revenue consequent on the impact of COVID will be a challenge and fundamental structural reform, as a result of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, will bring major change.

Rail is a very environmentally friendly form of transport but the industry is being challenged to significantly reduce emissions, including by moving away from diesel – the form of traction which has been dominant for nearly 60 years. Commitments have been made to major levels of investment in developing and trialling new and innovative green technologies to facilitate the transition but the mature technology of electrification can be expected to make the biggest single contribution. Electric railways are capable of moving passengers and freight at high speeds and large volumes at low cost – undoubtedly the ability to effectively deliver new electrification schemes on an efficient basis will be of fundamental importance to delivering the goals of the Plan. This is an area where the Department for Transport, Network Rail and the industry supply chain are all working hard to make progress.

The Plan makes clear that rail is fundamentally important to the Government’s strategy for decarbonising transport – it presents a great opportunity for the rail industry to further cement its place at the heart of our 21st century British transport system.

How we can help:

ES Rail Team: our team of Rail specialists is experienced in the delivery of new rail projects and major enhancements. We have recently advised a Local Authority in respect of its procurement of battery powered trams.


  1. The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail is explained in our recent briefing: “Great British Railways and the most fundamental rail reform for 30 years”.
  2. This policy statement aims to set a clear direction for the rail industry on environmental sustainability, and outlines policy priorities for the forthcoming Sustainable Rail Strategy.
  3. For analysis of the “Trains fit for the future” report, please see our recent briefing: “Decarbonising the UK’s Railways: will electric, hydrogen and batteries power the future of rail travel in the UK?”.
  4. This strategy examines where on the network overhead electrification, battery or hydrogen trains may be most effectively deployed as a replacement for diesel powered trains.
  5. For further information on the role of Great British Railways, see our recent briefing on the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail.
  6. For more information see our recent briefing on this year’s “First of a Kind” competition.
  7. For further information, please see our recent briefing on flexible ticketing.