Transportation is a major economic activity in the hustle and bustle of our society. Every day, herds of people travel between their homes, schools, offices, and leisure spots. Hence, an efficient and eco-friendly mode of transportation is of paramount importance, as road transport alone contributes around 11.9% of the world's carbon emissions.
The electrification of railways and trains is regarded as an effective move. Electric trains have almost no emissions compared to diesel trains, thus contributing to a cleaner environment, especially in tunnels and urban areas. Additionally, electric locomotives are quieter, faster, and more reliable than their diesel counterparts. Since electricity can also be generated from multiple regenerative sources like solar and hydropower, it can reduce resource depletion on Earth and make transportation more sustainable.
While the United Kingdom had the first train in the world, which ran in 1804, it did not have the world's first electric train. The first title was claimed by Germany when the first electric train ran in Berlin in 1879. However, recent leaps in the United Kingdom's railway electrification demonstrate a perfect example of how this reform has enhanced the efficiency and capacity of the railway system, allowing people to travel sustainably simultaneously.
The largest electrification scheme to date in the UK is the Transpennine Route Upgrade - an ambitious plan to electrify one of the UK's busiest mainline railways, connecting the northern cities of Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds, and York. Currently, it is unelectrified and extremely congested, to the extent that 15% of passengers had to stand during peak hours pre-COVID. The dual tracks limit capacity and easily cause disruption, with local ministers demanding improvements over the years.
The government unveiled this plan in 2012, aspiring not only to improve the mainline but also to relieve congestion on the key alternative—the M62 motorway—as part of their continued commitment to leveling up the North's economy. The plan involves extensive doubling of tracks, installation of overhead electric wires, and the introduction of electric trains. When completed, it will significantly reduce journey times, enhance capacity, and offer a sustainable alternative to driving. Journeys between Manchester and York will be reduced to 1 hour from 90 minutes since trains can accelerate and decelerate much quicker than current diesel models.
Further south, the Great Western Mainline upgrade is a completed infrastructure project that took place between 2010 and 2020. It was the last major unelectrified mainline in the UK, connecting London with major cities in the west such as Reading, Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth. The installation of overhead electric wires, station improvements including parking and step-free access, and the introduction of modern electric trains have substantially reduced journey times and improved accessibility. A major interchange along the line, Reading, was also completely remodeled to facilitate the seamless passage of more freight trains, expecting to take 300 lorries off the road daily.
Despite certain scale-backs, such as the cancellation of electrification to Swansea and Oxford and a delayed completion by around 3 years, cities in the West are now more effectively connected to the capital than ever before with a sustainable travel method. For instance, journey times between London and Swansea have been reduced by 19 minutes, and fewer emissions have been released into the environment with many lorries taken off the road. This project also plays a pivotal role in other major infrastructure projects, including the famous Elizabeth Line rail link that connects East and West London.
The transformative and impactful projects mentioned above represent just a fraction of the broader picture. Apart from saving the environment, the electrification of railways also has the 'spark effect'—passengers love to travel on electric trains. For example, the number of passengers increased by 29% in the first year on the Brighton line. This positive return has further encouraged train companies to be even more committed to this green project.
Having a clean, efficient, and eco-friendly transport system to support a country's sustainable development has been proven successful. We look forward to seeing similar reforms happen around the world, building a shared sustainable future hand in hand.
Author - Mr. Andreas Ip - Student ambassador of ICSD UK