Creating a green transport system in Britain

BRITAIN, under the terms of the Kyoto agreement, which was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005, must reduce emissions by 80-95 per cent compared with 1990. The Climate Change Act 2008 goes further, with Britain committed to a 34 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 and a reduction of 80 per cent by 2050. Transport is the biggest polluter, in terms of greenhouse gasses, responsible for 27 per cent of total emissions.

But rail accounts for less than 2 per cent of this. Rail is far cleaner, and far greener, than road and air. If more people travelled by train, rather than in motor cars or aeroplanes, we would live in a cleaner, greener world.

And if we moved more freight off our congested roads, and onto the railway tracks, it would help us to reach those targets. That’s why we think it is essential that the government makes a fully integrated and green transport network a priority. This means reducing the number of passenger and freight miles on our roads and moving them to our railways and waterways.

We recognise that road will always play a part in our transport network, with people driving their own cars in rural areas where bus services have been decimated since privatisation, or lorries carrying freight on the last leg of long journeys. The final mile, as it were. But it’s only by getting more passengers and freight out of cars and lorries and planes and onto the rail network that we will be able to reach those Kyoto targets.

A properly integrated transport system would see different transport modes complement each other if we provide the infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions to the lowest possible level. We need to develop an ongoing programme of electrification until we achieve 100 per cent electrification of our railway. Because electrified rail is cleaner, greener and quicker.

Electric trains weigh less than diesel trains (they don’t have to carry tanks full of fuel) which means they can accelerate faster, reducing the time needed for station stops; and lighter trains cause less wear and tear on the infrastructure which, in turn, saves money on repair and renewal. So electrification benefits rail users, and communities that live near the tracks, as well as helping the government achieve its goal of decarbonising transport. The Tories blamed cost as a reason to cancel several promised electrification projects they typically failed to deliver — including the Great Western main line project which was due to reach Swansea but will now stop at Cardiff — but the cost could be brought down significantly if the government implemented a rolling programme of works.

And if this plan was developed as part of a proper industrial strategy, it would support British jobs in a range of sectors in the supply chain. Goods, supplies and waste have to be moved around our country. If all this freight was moved on our roads, Britain would be permanently gridlocked (and under a fog of exhaust fumes).

But one freight train can take 80 heavy goods vehicles off our roads. And a properly organised, publicly owned rail freight system, part of a new industrial strategy, could see a range of different freight modes being used to ensure the most efficient and environmentally friendly movement of freight. This might include containers travelling by water, rail and then road for the final few miles to their destination, or waste travelling by rail right from the heart of cities out to a processing plant or port.

That’s why Aslef is calling on congress to campaign for further electrification of the railway as well as an increased modal shift from road to rail and waterways for freight. In addition, we want the general council to campaign for the reopening of train lines and the creation of new infrastructure to ensure we have the capacity for growth. The government has the power to drive this programme and help save our planet for future generations.

Mick Whelan was elected general secretary of Aslef in 2011 and was elected to the Labour Party NEC in 2017.

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