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Getting electric railways back on track

Lianna Etkind's picture
Photo: Campaigners and politicians hand in petition

If you had passed the Department for Transport last Wednesday morning, you'd have seen a gaggle of senior politicians, campaigners, and a giant green train outside.

Together with the climate action group 10:10, we were handing in a petition to Department for Transport, calling on the Minister to reinstate plans to electrify more of the Midlands Mainline, the Great Western Mainline, and the Lakes Line. 14,000 people supported our call to get rail electrification plans back on track and ditch dirty diesel trains.

Since Chris Grayling announced that he was scrapping electrification, there's been an amazing up swell of campaigning for electrification. MPs have asked questions on this topic almost every week in Parliament. Environmentalists, rail groups and organisations supporting a stronger economy in the North have joined forces. The Government has argued that bi-mode trains will deliver all the passenger benefits that electric trains would, but the evidence doesn't stack up. They are heavier, which results in more wear and tear on tracks leading to higher track maintenance costs. They have inferior braking and acceleration and are noisier than electric trains. With more moving parts to go wrong, they are less reliable.

We were joined outside the Department by spokespeople from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. All spoke powerfully about the need to transition to electric trains, especially at a time when air pollution is stunting children's lungs and shortening lives. Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield already suffer from poor air quality. Modern bi-mode trains are of course an improvement on wholly diesel trains, but if bi-mode trains continue to pump diesel fumes into the air along the Midland Mainline, people in those regions could face many more years of polluted air.

Regional inequality was also mentioned by many of the speakers. In a spectacularly bad piece of mistiming, the Government's decision to press ahead with the multi-billion Crossrail2 project in London and the South East was announced in the same week as the decision to backtrack on rail electrification in Wales, the North and the Midlands. Rail investment must be part of the Government's strategy to rebalance the economy and support prosperity in the regions.

Just a couple of  weeks before the petition hand-in, the UK Government had joined governments from across the world in Bonn, for the UN Climate Conference, and restated their commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Electricity generation has got significantly less carbon intensive, but carbon emissions from transport continue to rise. Electrifying our railways must be a part of our fight against catastrophic climate change.

Ten people stand in front of DfT, including one wearing a train outfit

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