ASLEF Response - Fuelling the Future

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ASLEF responded to the inquiry by the UK Parliament Transport Committee on future fuels in January 2022
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ASLEF responded to the inquiry by the UK Parliament Transport Committee on future fuels in January 2022

 

  1. The Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) is the UK’s largest train driver’s union representing over 21,000 members in train operating companies and freight companies as well as London Underground and light rail systems.
  2. ASLEF is pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this call for evidence on future fuel. The rail industry is already at the forefront of research and development into alternative and environmentally friendly fuels and ASLEF is pleased to be working with rail operators to ensure that future rail vehicles are designed appropriately to accommodate both a working environment and new fuels.
  3. ASLEF is currently campaigning for increased investment in the rail network across the country, in light of the government’s stated aims to ‘level up’ and improve connectivity across the regions and nations. The union’s Invest in Rail campaign covers upgrade projects, electrification and the development of high-quality, safe and comfortable driving cabs to enable the drivers we represent to do their jobs effectively.

 

Opportunities

  1. Britain’s railway runs mostly on Victorian infrastructure, with approximately 38% electrified rail. Electrified rail has existed since X date in the nineteenth century, so it is not a ‘new’ fuel, but it is clear that electrified rail has an extremely low carbon footprint and therefore should be prioritised. Electrified rail is also sufficient to generate the required power to move heavy freight trains and high-speed passenger trains at the speeds required to fully utilise the network. No fuel other than diesel has yet been shown to meet this test.
  2. Hydrogen fuelled trains are in development with several operators and in use in a small number of cases in Europe. In the UK, testing and development is currently taking place. ASLEF’s primary role is to ensure the safety and wellbeing of train drivers, and the union therefore works with train operators on the design of new rolling stock. In the case of hydrogen-powered trains, the union’s main concern is to ensure that hydrogen power is not simply ‘bolted on’ to older rolling stock without any updates to the cab environment or its ergonomics.
  3. Similarly in the case of battery-powered trains, ASLEF is strongly in favour of completely new units being built or – if shells of older rolling stock must be used – for a modern cab design to be part of the development process.
  4. If either battery or hydrogen power is to be used across the rail network, the supply of these resources is an important issue to consider. In the case of Hydrogen, there are sustainable and less sustainable methods of generating the fuel. ASLEF is of course in favour of using the more sustainable method, though this does come with increased costs. For both battery charging and hydrogen fuelling, new infrastructure at key trackside locations will be required to enable refuelling and recharging. It is not yet clear whether the required land exists to achieve this and, for example, what the maximum distance can be between stops.

 

Government Policy

  1. Government policy can improve this situation in several ways. Firstly, in order to bring about full electrification of the railway a rolling programme is required. Rather than piecemeal projects, an ongoing programme would be more cost effective as skills and supply chains can be retained from project to project rather than them needing to be established every time.
  2. Government policy is also required to ensure that land is available for storage and generation of power including hydrogen and battery refuelling sites. This may require changes to planning guidance or intervention in local development plans to ensure space is available next to railway lines and at depots.
  3. Development of clean and renewable methods of generating fuel is also reliant on government policy and investment. In order to fully power the electrical grid, more power will be required. This should be sourced via renewable methods including wind, solar and tidal power – for example by fully funding the building of tidal lagoons along the British coast. In the case of Hydrogen, ‘clean’ Hydrogen production facilities will also need to be developed and funded.
  4. In conclusion, there are several opportunities in the rail sector for the development and use of future fuels in order to reduce Carbon Emissions and ‘green’ the railway but significant investment and political will is required to realise them.