UK to phase out diesel-powered trains by 2040

Diesel-powered trains © Train Photos
© Train Photos

The UK has announced plans to phase out all diesel-powered trains by 2040 as part of its wider decarbonisation strategy.

The UK has already committed to ending the sales of diesel and petrol cars by 2040, and now Minister for Transport Jo Johnson has called on the rail industry to mirror this ambition with the withdrawal of diesel-powered trains.

Currently, around 29% of the UK’s trains run exclusively on diesel. Under Johnson’s plan, these trains would either be decommissioned or converted to run on hybrid electricity/diesel power. Johnson has also said that he would like to pursue trials for hydrogen-fuelled trains “as soon as possible”, as it could offer an affordable and clean alternative to diesel.

How will the scheme be funded?

MPs have warned that the costs of replacing diesel-powered trains with those powered by electricity, batteries and other alternative fuels may be passed onto consumers through higher ticket prices.

They have called on the government to provide appropriate incentives to rail companies, to avoid this outcome. However, the government has not yet been able to say how the scheme will be paid for, and no additional funding has been announced.

The plan comes only a few months after the government cancelled a number of planned rail electrification projects, which has also led some to question the UK’s commitment to decarbonising the rail industry.

What has the response been?

The Rail Freight Group (RFG), the UK’s leading rail freight trade association, welcomed the government’s ambition. However, it has called for the government to support the development of technologies which could contribute to decreased emissions, and specified three concrete actions:

  • Extending the remit of the Office for Low Emission vehicles to cover freight;
  • Including railways in current retrofit grants for road vehicles; and
  • Continuing affordable electrification of the strategic freight network.

Without this additional support needed to facilitate the transition away from diesel-powered trains in rail freight, RFG’s executive director, Maggie Simpson, warned that setting 2040 as a target without additional measures to support this could lead to reduced investment.

She said: “Whilst battery and hydrogen may show promise for lightweight passenger trains, their application for heavy duty freight is at best unproven, and setting an arbitrary deadline of 2040 could well therefore be counterproductive, damaging the case for investment in our sector.”

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