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?