Government to phase out diesel-only trains on UK railways by 2040

The government has today announced its commitment to scrapping all diesel-only trains on UK railways by 2040.

In a speech delivered by rail minister Jo Johnson, he has called on Britain to be more environmentally ambitious because increased travel has resulted in greater carbon emissions. The announcement follows last year's promise by the government to ban the sale of new, non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars by 2040. 

Johnson is giving the industry a six-month time frame to come forward with ideas and strategies to ensure the phasing out of diesel-only trains is achievable. 

Speaking at the British Museum, the minister reiterated a government desire to have hydrogen train trials on the UK railway as soon as possible, with it said to offer "an affordable - and potentially much cleaner - alternative to diesel".

“I would like to see us take all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040,” Johnson said. “If that seems like an ambitious goal, it should be and I make no apology for that. After all, we’re committed to ending the sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040. If we can achieve that, then why can’t the railway aspire to a similar objective?”

The announcement today included a reference to rail electrification schemes which the government decided to scrap last year. Ministers claim schemes in Wales and the north that have been scaled back are not the only cost-effective approach to tackling environmental issues. 

Johnson added: “By decarbonising rail, we’ll reduce pollutants and improve air quality, particularly in our semi-enclosed stations. We will tackle this with the urgency it deserves by setting tough new environmental performance goals in each rail franchise which the train operators will have to meet. Total electrification of our tracks is unlikely to be the only or most cost-effective way to secure these vital environmental benefits. New bi-modes trains are a great bridging technology to other low emission futures.”

The news has been welcomed by many within the industry but there are still calls for the government to implement measures in the interim before 2040. 

Stephen Joseph, chief executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “There are huge opportunities for decarbonising rail and an urgency in cutting pollution levels at railway stations. But, without a more consistent approach, the risk is that we see old diesel trains running round the network for the next 25 years.” 

Commenting on the announcement, Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “Phasing out diesel-only trains is an important step. But achieving the transition to a low carbon transport network will require the introduction of a mix of different technologies and policies. The government has outlined plans to phase out diesel trains by 2040 and over the course of the next 20 years we may see the introduction of hybrid trains using diesel and battery technologies as well as hydrogen trains on lines where electrification is cost prohibitive. In the interim it may be appropriate to retrofit technology, such as stop-start functionality on existing diesel locomotives, reducing emissions while trains are standing at platforms.”

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