Yes to rail electrification, but new roads are not the answer

A great blog written by Chris Broome from SCA committee and the Climate Jobs and Warm Homes group. If you would like to comment on the blog or find out more about what the group does, do use our contact form to get in touch. 

There has been much in the press lately about train electrification. In particular, it has been announced that some lines, including The Midland Mainline from Sheffield to London, will no longer be fully electrified, due to escalating cost estimates. Instead, Transport Minister, Chris Grayling has decided that diesel/electric “bi-mode” trains will be adequate to run on this and other lines. Sheffield Climate Alliance held a welcome and rally in September for campaigners bringing a giant electrical plug into Sheffield Station to protest at this downgrading of the plans.

Meanwhile, high level political consensus is growing around the “Northern Powerhouse” concept. There is no precise definition of this term – essentially the aim is to boost productivity and the economy in general by re-industrialising the North. The transport strategy around this involves investing billions of pounds in rail and road schemes. These, the theory goes, will better connect the major Northern towns and cities producing one large, well-integrated economic entity in which people, goods and ideas can travel around more quickly and easily.
 Whilst it is rail schemes that have received most publicity in recent months, the road plans should also greatly concern campaigners.  The problem is that they have been devised without serious reference to climate policy.  The Government line is that decarbonisation of road transport will be achieved through a mixture of measures, the main one being a move towards more fuel- efficient and electric cars. Yet is clear from its own evidence that climate targets are unlikely to be achieved unless firm measures are put in place to limit traffic growth too. Whilst it is difficult to find figures that are directly comparable, the Department of Transport recently estimated that if its plans are successfully implemented, road traffic emissions should fall by 10-20% by 2030 before starting to rise again.  Against this, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimate that all domestic traffic emissions – 93% of which are currently from road traffic- should drop by 10-20% by 2030 and then (obviously!) continue to fall. So these figures are roughly comparable and there is a clear gap between emissions predictions and limits that will achieve climate targets.
 As time goes on, that gap becomes ever starker. In 2050, the CCC warn that domestic transport may need to be virtually zero-carbon overall.  That prospect is very distant for a whole host of reasons. For example, no one has come close to developing low-carbon heavy lorries, let alone started to roll them off the production lines.
To return to plans for the North, a new body, Transport for the North (TftN –, has been given responsibility for developing transport infrastructure here. Rather alarmingly, TftN’s “Initial Major Roads Report” only devotes four paragraphs to environmental impacts and air quality is the only specific issue covered. 
 So what can we do? Happily, the Campaign for Better Transport has already hosted a consultation in which numerous respondents called for all environmental impacts of the plans to be given far more serious consideration. TftN’s plans will continue to develop so it is well worth supporting those calls. At Sheffield Climate Alliance, we will continue to lobby TftN, politicians and business organisations, by ourselves and by supporting the efforts of other campaigning groups. We always seek to show the benefits of our vision for a prosperous and sustainable future, above one which considers maximising economic growth to be the only way forward.  We need better public transport, efforts to make walking and cycling more attractive and planning such that we can live nearer the places we need to go. This will improve our health and reduce congestion on our roads.
Do contact us if you would like to get involved.