Reopening Britain’s railway lines to cut emissions

Last week the final CO2 emissions calculations for 2017 were released by Britain’s Office for National Statistics. They show an ongoing fall in emissions, driven primarily by the phasing out of coal in the energy mix. Here’s the summary of the various sectors, their percentage of overall emissions and the progress in reducing them:

Ideally every arrow on the right there should be pointed downwards, and it’s frustrating to see rising emissions on waste and agriculture. It’s also crazy to have no progress to report on transport, which is now Britain’s biggest source of emissions.

As I’ve outlined before, the problem here is road transport and cars in particular. There are many solutions to this, from the default policy of electric cars to more permanent fixes such as walkable cities. Better public transport systems are an obvious way to cut emissions, including the neglected option of bus travel.

The Campaign for Better Transport also sees the potential in expanding Britain’s railways. This is easier in Britain than in many other places, because the country has many disused lines. The network was famously trimmed under the leadership of Richard Beeching, with the number of stations halved between 1964 and 1984. Much of that was to reduce loss-making stations and branch lines, as road travel grew and rail passenger numbers declined.

Some of that old infrastructure has been turned into cycle paths and footpaths, or returned to nature. Other lines are waiting to be rediscovered and put back into service. People have been saying this for years of course, but now is a good time. Trains are popular, and minus a fall in season ticket holders last year, passenger numbers have been growing. Not every line would be profitable of course, but there are lots of opportunities to connect towns that have lost their rail service, linking communities back into the network. In some cases this would bring new opportunities to marginalised areas, opening up new possibilities for work and housing.

There are also some success stories to draw on. The Stirling to Alloa line, re-opened in 2009, serves three times more passengers than anticipated. Another Scottish line, the Borders Railway, was closed in 1969. It reopened in 2015 and has double the number of passengers forecast.

In their latest report, the CBT have looked at 224 potential projects and identified 33 of the most promising. Some are relatively straightforward, including several lines where the stations are closed but freight trains still run. Some would directly address car dependency in commuting and reduce traffic on major roads, such as reopening the Portishead to Bristol line. Bringing the 12 miles between Leek and Stoke back into use could play an important role in regeneration.

The 33 priority schemes would bring half a million more people within walking distance of a station, many of them in disadvantaged areas of the country.

The possibilities are even more interesting if we add in the potential for locally owned rail services, giving passengers a stake in the trains that they ride. With the right support, there’s no reason why community rail services shouldn’t be as common as community energy. Can we imagine a future for Britain’s railways that cuts transport emissions, and that brings opportunities to marginalised communities and reduces inequality at the same time?


  1. It’s good that Transport emissions didn’t rise, despite privatizing and shrinking railway network and growth in number of motor vehicles.

  2. As a heritage railway enthusiast I am mostly in favour of reopening closed railways but they can have a negative effect on existing heritage railways.

    The Leek to Stoke reopening is a positive example as the heritage Chutney Valley Railway would be reopening currently closed track and this would not go over their existing main line.

    In Rossendale by Manchester the council is looking to run commuter trains over the East Lancashire Railway. This could be positive for the railway which is the third most visited in the UK if done sympathetically and only kept to the crush hour. But modern signalling and other safety requirements will necessarily change the vintage ambiance. Just running stream trains in a modern railway is not a a complete visitor experience as the current set up. If this commuter operation became popular extra trains would reduce the paths available to the ELR. It would cease to be a heritage railway and become a normal one with the odd special.

    Of course the argument is that public services should come before vintage ones but it does bring a lot of money into the local economy.

    The experience of hertiage railways is an instructive one. Many were founded in the 1960s with the intention of being community railways but found that wasn’t viable and moved to where the market and volunteers were, hertiage stream trains. Community railways will almost certainly be uneconomic without permanent grant support.

  3. An interesting perspective. I suppose in a best case scenario heritage railways and commuter lines could co-exist and support each other. If you’re running trains for an underserved commuter town, you’ve got a potentially reliable income stream, mid-week, with steam running at weekends for daytrippers.

    It wouldn’t be the full visitor experience that the very best heritage railways achieve, but it makes the difference commercially, it could be worthwhile.

    Community rail should be able to work where it doesn’t have to compete with bigger companies that use their bully power – like Virgin did with the Wrexham and Shropshire line. That’s still the best example of how it could be done, and also of how the system is stacked against incomers.

  4. The Borders Line from Edinburgh to near Melrose has indeed been a great success, to the extent that the trains at rush hour are now overcrowded. . Another great opportunity would be just over the border, from Penrith to Keswick, a line closed within living memory that could carry again a large number of passengers into the Lake District and take pressure off the congested A66. However this is not likely to happen because Cumbria County Council have refused to support the idea. Quite why is something of a mystery.

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