Imagine electric battery trains next year from Buxton to Manchester … and from Blackburn, Warrington, Sheffield, and more.
With the climate crisis facing us all, we know we need to reduce carbon emissions. Electric trains using overhead wires help us today by replacing diesel trains, but about a third of the network still has no overhead wires, mostly on rural and semi-rural lines. And it can take ten years to get new overhead wires added to one line, but we and our planet have run out of spare time.
Battery trains today can have a range of 60 miles and a recharge time of 7 minutes. This innovation allows for the necessary rapid transition to an all-electric railway. This will also bring air quality improvements, not least in our inner cities around main stations and lines.
However, while we already have the technology we still too often collectively fail to deliver the changes we know we need. This article hopefully suggests some ways forward, for discussion but mostly with the purpose of assisting action.
The idea of battery trains is not new. There are examples of services running in Ireland in the 1930s and in Scotland in the 1950s. Of course, battery technology has changed since then but the fundamentals are the same.
Currently there are various projects and initiatives for battery trains on specific lines, such as from north Wales to the Wirral, and from Chester to Crewe. There is also a frankly crawling programme of adding overhead wires, such as in the Lakes District. But the nervous breakdown that the railways organisations suffered while trying to add overhead wires around Bolton and Preston is still an open wound.
So we need to consider a rapid and intensive programme of introducing battery trains across the network, and not just more time-buying projects.
From the outside it often seems that the rail system or family of organisations and stakeholders was deliberately designed to be self-sabotaging. The speeding up of rail connections east-west between the cities across the north, sometimes called HS3 or the Crossrail of the North, has a government minister having to hold regular meetings, chasing progress, fixing misunderstandings and such, basically unblocking the drains.
A title like HS4 or CrossRail of the North for the rapid introduction of battery trains doesn’t quite work, but the political and organisational context is much the same, maybe worse given the wider number of local authority stakeholders.
In my days working at the North West regional development agency there was a phrase only ever used internally and at select frustrating moments, to differentiate between the rarer environmental programmes that led to real change, and some other ineffective initiatives which were “di*king about”. Harsh but true, and self-aware.
So, battery trains at pace and at scale in the UK rail family outside of London – a massive challenge to all of us.
Imagine a train station next to a church yard and bin store which needs some extra land for a transformer to recharge the trains. Imagine the parish council, the church trustees, Network Rail, the train operator, Highways England, the county council, sitting around a table in good faith. And shaking hands on a land swap – we have your old bins area, and we give you this other unused area for a new remembrance garden or whatever. And a photo of everyone for the local paper.
Frankly this would normally take months, if not years. Surveys, feasibility studies, reports, consultations, funding requests, sometimes appointing a programme director. Funding is then earmarked from control period ninety-nine.
Of course there is still a place for pilot projects. The hydrogen fuel cell enthusiasts deserve their chance. The tri-mode and quad-mode train lobbies similarly.
I’m still keen on reviving the Regional Eurostars, in case anyone is interested, business case on request.
But none of this should stop us electrifying the railways at scale and at pace – action this day. Better for the planet to do now and ask forgiveness, than to wait another day.