The cost of running electric trains has risen 210% © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
The cost of running electric trains has risen 210% © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Rail freight reverts to diesel trains due to power prices

14 October 2021

The UK Rail Freight Group (RFG) has said some of members are “temporarily” reverting to diesel locomotives due to the high cost of electricity. 

Maggie Simpson, director general at the RFG, described the move as “really regrettable” but argued diesel rail freight still produces 76% less carbon emissions than road freight. 

The RFG estimates energy costs per train have increased by 200%, which “cannot be absorbed by the operators, or customers, and so necessary action is being taken to ensure that trains can continue to operate delivering vital goods across the country”.

The news comes as a blow to the government as the country prepares to host the COP26 summit in Glasgow in two weeks' time, where world leaders will discuss efforts to address climate change.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Simpson explained the decision has been made as fixed-term energy contracts came to an end.

Simpson argued the move to diesel-powered locomotives was “keeping the trains moving” and was ensuring the stability of supply chains. 

“The actions we're taking are keeping the trains moving. We're also seeing obviously big supply chain disruption and the last thing that the industry needs to do is disappoint customers. The most important thing for us is to keep those trains moving at affordable costs to the customers,” she said. 

“We're moving vital supplies, supermarket goods, toys for Christmas, fuel, car parts, and all sorts of important and vital goods for consumers and the economy.

“We need to keep them moving at an affordable price and at the moment the best way to do that is to use diesel traction on those services.”

Freightliner, one of the companies reverting to diesel and a key freight player, described it as a “difficult decision”.

A Freightliner spokesperson told The Independent: “As a result of soaring prices on the UK’s wholesale electricity market, the price Network Rail charges us to operate electric train services has increased by more than 210% between September and October.

“This unprecedented rise in electricity charges has resulted in a sharp increase in the cost of operating electric freight services.

“As a result, Freightliner has taken the difficult decision to temporarily replace electric freight services with diesel-hauled services, in order to maintain a cost-effective option for transporting vital goods and supplies across the UK.”

The government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan aims to phase out the use of diesel-powered transport and sets the goal of achieving net-zero in the UK’s transport emissions by 2050. 

New diesel and petrol cars and vans will no longer be sold from 2030, while diesel-only trains will be phased out by 2040. 

Data from the Office of Rail and Road shows the UK is not electrifying its railways quick enough to meet net zero.

In 2020-21, only 179km of extra track was electrified, less than half the 448km required each year to meet targets.

David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association, said: “We need to get a programme of electrification work underway today, so we can decarbonise the network, bring greater benefits to passengers and freight users, and support the UK economy as we look to ‘build back better’.”

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