Posted 14th October 2021 | 7 Comments

Railfreight goes back to diesel as electricity costs soar

SOME rail freight operators have abandoned electric traction, at least for now, because the price of electricity has been rising sharply. The electricity tariffs include a 40 per cent renewable energy tax, and following the latest rises diesel traction is now cheaper. The drivers' union ASLEF is calling for the government to intervene, but Freightliner has already taken action. 

The company said: 'As a result of soaring prices in the UK’s wholesale electricity market, the price Network Rail charges us to operate electric services has increased by more than 210 per cent 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.'

Direct Rail Services, which is not privatised, said it was 'committed to low carbon rail freight'. However, it is also able to run its dual traction locomotives only in diesel mode for now, saying: 'Our fleet of locomotives offers the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions while maintaining a safe, secure and reliable service. That might mean we change the type of traction we use on our train services in response to temporary fluctuations in energy prices.'

The Rail Freight Group said: 'The current significant increase in the wholesale cost of electricity for haulage means that some operators have had to take the regrettable decision to temporarily move back to diesel locomotives. A 200 per cent increase in electricity costs for each train 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. Our members are assuring us that this is a temporary measure and will be kept under constant review.'

The Rail Delivery Group warned that some operators 'may need to take short-term action to afford their bills,' while Network Rail pointed out that 'Electricity costs for Network Rail and passenger operators were negotiated some time ago and are fixed for this year and most of next'.

ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: ‘What an omnishambles! It is utterly ridiculous that, a few weeks before COP26, when we will be looking to our politicians to plan for a green future, and a sustainable economy, to save our planet, environmentally-friendly electric locomotives are being replaced by diesel-powered units to haul goods around the country. Moving freight by rail rather than road is, inherently, a carbon-efficient mode of transport and an environmentally-friendly way of doing business. Electric-hauled freight services reduce emissions by 99 per cent; even moving goods by diesel traction reduces emissions by 76 per cent. But this backwards step – forced on the freight industry by government inaction – will drive a freight train through our green credentials and make our targets that much harder to achieve.

'That’s why we are calling for the Prime Minister to put down his paint brush and stop painting pictures in sunny Marbella and get back to work here in Britain – which is what he is paid for – to help the rest of us out of this crisis. We need the government to act now to help businesses – hit hard by soaring prices – and consumers who are already struggling to pay their bills.'

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    Reference has been made to "the backward British".

    As a Brit who has seen many decades go by, what strikes me is , firstly , our propensity for "short termism", which does negatively affect things like electrification schemes , and the way we keep inventing things , that then get developed elsewhere ( the Pendolino train, for example).

  • John Gilbert, Cradley

    Well, of course, had those several short lengths of non-wired track BEEN WIRED and the politicians not been sitting on their hands about it, the pressure to keep trains all-electric would have been that much stronger. But as it is, with our fragmented electrification in this benighted, backward country, there is simply little pressure on the Freight Companies to persevere with electric traction in a period of high costs - I bet there weren't many, if any continental freight trains switching to diesel!!!! The backward British again!!

  • Martin Marrison, Haywards Heath

    This is madness it is like home owners disconnecting from the grid and running there own generators to power their houses! How will we get to net zero if industries take this approach. We will see eclectic units being pulled by diesel engines soon?

  • david c smith, Bletchley

    I think a reappraisal of the gas turbine may be useful., especially re. any "green" credentials, with hydrogen as fuel.

    If I remember correctly, the first generation of gas turbine on rail in the 50's and '60's came to an end due to fuel cost rises. Although compact and relatively simple, they were inefficient when not on "full load". Maybe this could be solved by having a (hydrogen) gas turbine on constant full load setting feeding a battery-electric transmission ?

  • Les Cottrell, Stafford

    If Union leaders were that concerned about the advantages of green rail transport it is rich calling on their members on strike during the COP 26 Summit.

  • James Miller, Hackney

    If ever there was an argument for hydrogen-powered freight locomotives, this is it.

    But not with fuel cells! Rolls-Royce have developed a 2.5 MW electrical generator, that is the size of a beer keg, which would fit in a typical diesel-electric locomotive. As it is a gas turbine, it would run on hydrogen.

    I suspect it would fit in a Class 66 and drive the electric transmission.

  • king arthur, Buckley

    Again, complaints about the energy situation are a bit rich coming from the trade unions, who have been the most vocal supporters of the Net Zero idiocy. But let's talk about facts instead of feelings for a moment. There are presently just short of eleven thousand wind turbines in and around the UK, some of them colossal in size, yet these managed to produce less than four percent of this country's energy requirements in 2020. This is worse than pathetic and of course, everyone will be forced to pay for this cripplingly expensive fantasy.

    Ths Green agenda makes for great dinner conversation, until the lights go out.