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What Does The Future of Electrified Freight Look Like?

3 min

c. Rob Reedman, flickr
As it becomes clearer the easiest way to decarbonise is to move to rail, Quadrant Transport looks at why it is essential to electrify rail freight and how likely it is to happen. 

Freight plays a huge role in the moving of goods around the country. Statistics from the ORR indicate 4.33 billion net tonne-kilometres of freight moved in the first quarter of 2021-22.

This, a dramatic increase of 36.5% compared to the same quarter last year means total freight lifted was 19.9 million tonnes in the first quarter of 2021-22.

So, why is it important to electrify freight?

It is widely reported that transporting freight on rail compared to the road is better for the environment. Reports from 2018 highlight this, with the findings from the German government. The report stated: “​​In 2018, an average freight train emitted around 18 grams of carbon dioxide per tonne-kilometre. The emissions of an average truck were much higher: 112 grams of CO2 per kilometre.”

Despite being more environmentally friendly, it is still vital that transport emissions are dramatically reduced as we push towards net-zero. Railways made up 1.4% of the UK’s transport CO2 emissions in 2018, so there is room for improvement.

Over in the US, the world’s first battery-electric freight train was unveiled at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Each year it is expected to help haul over 1.7 bn tonnes of goods.

If this is replicated in the UK with sufficient rail investment, it could lead the way for freight electrification in Europe. It is predicted to cut fuel consumption in America’s freight network by 11%. Rolling out in 2023, the new 75ft long train has 500 lithium-ion battery modules.

Calls for a rolling programme of electrification grow louder

The UK are no stranger to electrification, with a rolling programme on Scotland’s rail network and England’s fast rollout of electric vehicles on the highway network. There have been huge investments in vans and medium-sized HGVs, with trials continuing into 2022.

However, developments in long haul HGVs have been limited. This coinciding with environmental target deadlines rapidly approaching, it makes the most sense to invest in the sector that already has a track record for electrification.

Low carbon biofuels can help reduce emissions but are not zero-carbon so only help as a transitional option.

There are calls for a long haul electrified rail network with a short and medium electrified road haulage network. This is the most credible route to decarbonise land-based freight.

A rolling programme of electrification in both passenger and freight would bring further benefits to the industry. The obvious advantage of a rolling programme of electrification would be the delivery speed.

In terms of getting spades in the ground, a rolling programme of electrification would create a consistent workforce and reduce the current skills gap in electrification.

As it stands, electrification in England is stagnated, which leaves much of the workforce going into different areas of construction and rail. A rolling programme of electrification would plug this gap. Over time projects will be delivered faster, cheaper and more efficiently. This would both benefit the freight industry and the environment.