Railways are a central part of the rapid transition towards low-carbon transport. In order to meet international climate targets, there needs to be a drop in unnecessary travel, and a switch, a so-called ‘modal shift’, of most air and road travel to rail. Most transport needs rapid electrification too. However today only 30 percent of the world’s railways are electric. Many trains are still running on diesel, which is not only a source of planet-heating carbon emissions, but also contributes to deadly air pollution by releasing toxic nitrogen compounds (NOX) and fine particles into the atmosphere and people’s lungs.

India’s railways are both a huge employer and famous institution, which could now be taking the nation on a journey towards a lower carbon future. In recent years, the Government of India has been investing strongly in the electrification of its railway. It plans to have India’s railways fully powered by electricity from renewable sources by 2023. According to Indian Railways – the national railway service – these plans would also help the Government save about 1.3 billion pounds (Rs 14,500 crore) per year on fuel bills. Between 2018 and 2019, more than 5,000 kilometres of rail were electrified (compared, for example, to 251 km electrified in the UK). And despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, India increased its railway electrification by 37% – by adding 4,000 km to the network. According to the Railway Ministry, the Government has achieved about 66% of its overall target,. and aims to position itself as a world leader in sustainable rail transport:  

“Once completed, Indian Railways will achieve a unique feat among the major railways in the world to run trains fully with indigenously produced power without dependence on imported fossil fuel”. 

To reach its target, the Railways have started a small pilot project to generate  1.5 MW solar energy, aiming to increase this hugely using railway land to 20 GW by 2030. 

In contrast, the UK still lags far behind with a mere 38% of railway routes powered by electricity. So what is pushing some countries to lead the way with railway electrification? And if high-speed rail is to become the green alternative to road and air transport, to what extent are these plans to electrify the network helping to meet our global climate change targets?

While the first electric operating railway was inaugurated as far back as 1883, the share of electrified tracks today still accounts for less than a third of all railway routes in the world. Switzerland is host to the world’s most fully electrified railway. In 2016, regions with the highest share of activity on electric trains were Europe (80%), Russia (86%) Korea (90%), Japan (97%) and Russia (86%). while North and South America are still heavily reliant on diesel-powered trains. India and China have the largest length of railways – together representing just over 70% of the global network.

Wider relevance

In 2014, the Union of International Railways (UIC) presented its ‘Low Carbon Rail Transport Challenge’ to the UN Climate Summit. The paper outlined a global vision for the sector including three major voluntary targets: to improve rail efficiency, to decarbonise electricity supply, and to achieve a more sustainable balance of transport modes. A year later, at the 2015 COP21 Summit in Paris, the first “Railway Climate Responsibility” pledge was signed by more than 60 members from the UIC – representing the largest share of rail activity worldwide.

These plans to decarbonise rail align with recommendations made by the International Energy Agency (IEA) which holds rail as a major player in reducing carbon emissions from transport in order to meet the Paris agreement target of keeping below 1.5°C global warming. In particular the IEA stresses the importance of high speed electric rail, which could substitute for most short-haul aviation routes (up to 1000 km) by 2060. In 2015, the transport sector was responsible for 28.8% of CO2 emissions from global final energy consumption – to which rail accounted for just 4.2% of global transport CO2 emissions. The French Government has recently announced a ban on journeys by plane that could be travelled by train in under two and a half hours. To operate this necessary shift in transport mode from private vehicles to public transport, urban rail services will face increasing passenger demand – projected to rise by a factor of 8 in the IEA’s most ambitious climate scenario. 

Between 1990 and 2015, CO2 emissions per transport unit decreased by 31.6%. Rail’s carbon intensity is comparatively much lower than the road sector due to its higher energy efficiency. Electric trains are estimated to produce 20-35% fewer carbon emissions per passenger mile than a diesel train – something that will further improve with the uptake of renewable energy and a shrinking share of fossil fuels being used to generate electricity. In order to fully decarbonise railway networks, trains will have to run entirely on electricity from renewable energy sources. At the end of 2017, the Dutch railway reached its target of being 100% wind-powered on its electric railway – reducing its consumption of energy per passenger by a further 35% (compared to 2005 levels).

In England, Riding Sunbeams – an initiative between the climate charity Possible and Community Energy South – pioneered the world’s first railway directly connected to solar power at its Aldershot site. The organisation worked in partnership with Imperial College London to establish the potential of solar traction power in the UK and abroad. Its research found that it could produce as a supplement at least a tenth of the energy required to power trains on the UK’s direct current (DC) electrified routes each year and that other countries like India and Spain have similarly good development potential.

Context and background

At the end of the 19th Century, railway electrification began to slowly replace the previously dominant steam power. The advantages of this new technology were many, especially with regard to its quick acceleration and power capacity – and adapting particularly well to heavy freight trains and mountainous landscapes – as well as suburban uses.

The world’s very first electric operating railway track was installed in Brighton, on the UK’s South Coast, in 1883. Sweden, like Switzerland, started to electrify its State-owned railway network before WWI. From 1911 to 1914, the country electrified 120 km of its Malmbanan line – the so-called ‘ore line’ which was used to transport magnetite ore from mines in Kiruna to the port of Narvik in Norway. Due to their large hydropower resources, both Switzerland and Sweden were able to supply power for their railway from their hydropower plants.

In Britain, the nationalisation of the railways in 1948 led to the expansion of its electrified railway system. With the privatisation of British rail in 1997 and minimal capital investment into the network, expansion of the electrification process proceeded slowly and large areas outside London still remain non-electrified.

Today climate change targets are forcing governments to step up their plans to decarbonise transport, in which railway electrification plays an important part. In India, the Government pledged to reduce carbon intensity of its economic activity by 33-35% by 2030 (based on 2005 levels). As a major sector of the economy, and obviously Indian Railways are seen as playing a key role in the decarbonisation of its transport sector, hopefully to serve as a model for other industries to copy. Indian Railways is the world’s second largest railway network – behind China – and the largest consumer of electricity in India, at about 18 Terra Watts per year (around 2% of India’s power generation). The railway is also a great consumer of diesel – around 2.6 billion litres per year which accounts for 3.2% of total diesel consumption by the Indian transport sector.

Enabling factors

Railway electrification in the early 20th Century was primarily driven by economic concerns.  In Sweden, which was an early-adopter of electric railways, the high price of coal – at over £6 per tonne – to power locomotives contributed to the shift towards the cheaper alternative of electricity. Despite a significant fall in the price of coal – up to 1930, the electrification of rail proceeded thanks to its early success and lower operating costs. This change in infrastructure proved particularly valuable to Sweden, which was able to stimulate employment in the railway sector and avoid the worst effects of  industrial depression. 

The presence of viable alternative energy sources to supply electricity to the network was also an important factor in the successful transition of some countries to electric railways. Both Sweden and Switzerland – running respectively on 75% and 100% electrified railways – have large sources of hydropower. In particular, Switzerland’s landlocked position and its lack of coal or oil deposits contributed to the country tapping early on into hydropower to electrify its railway fleet during both World Wars when supplies were restricted.  

Today, the greatest incentives behind railway electrification are to do with environmental and climate concerns. The need to rapidly reduce emissions from road transport make railways  an attractive and sustainable alternative. In 2018, the UK Government challenged its rail industry to decarbonise the sector by removing all diesel-powered trains by 2040. This prompted the creation of the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce to examine low-carbon alternatives to diesel-only trains. In India, both environmental and economic motivations played a role in the drive  to railway electrification. 

The particular circumstances of Indian Railways made it a suitable target for full decarbonisation. It plays a  strong role in the Indian economy and is entirely owned by the Indian Government, which facilitated electrification. This fits a pattern. Many industrialised countries with a sizable electrified rail network have government-owned railways. Electric trains are on average far cheaper than diesel-powered equivalents – 47p per mile for diesel and 26p for electricity – but the biggest costs by far are in changing the transmission infrastructure. A state-ownership model is generally  better suited to bearing those huge upfront costs which have long term benefits.

A significant body of research shows that public ownership of transport is both economically and environmentally beneficial. Under public ownership, rail companies are not driven by profit maximisation for shareholders alone. As a result, any accrued savings can then be directly reinvested into the expansion and maintenance of the network. For example, it is estimated that  public ownership of the UK rail network could save up to £1 billion per year. 

India’s commitment to full railway electrification by 2023 shows that rapid rail decarbonisation is possible when strong political will and large-scale public investment are part of the equation. 

Scope and evidence

  • In 1883 the world’s first operating electric railway was installed in Brighton by inventor and electric engineer Magnus Volk.
  • In 1892 the world’s first electric rack railway was installed at the Mont-Salève (in France) bordering the Swiss city of Geneva, using 500 V DC.
  • Between 1911-1914, Sweden built its first electric railways powered by the country’s hydropower resources. Sweden and Switzerland were early adopters of electric rail, before most other European countries, largely because of their access to hydropower.  
  • In 2014, the Union of International Railways (UIC) presented its ‘Low Carbon Rail Transport Challenge’ to the UN Climate Summit outlining a global vision for decarbonising the sector. A year later, at the 2015 COP21 Summit in Paris, the first “Railway Climate Responsibility” pledge was signed by more than 60 members from the UIC – representing the largest share of rail activity worldwide.
  • By the end of 2017, Dutch electricity supply was fully powered by wind energy, meeting its target a year early.
  • In 2020, the Indian Railway Ministry announced it would fully electrify its extensive railway network by 2023 and become net zero emitter by 2030. 
  • Between 2018 and 2019, India electrified more than 5,000 kilometres of rail.
  • In 2018, the UK Government set a target for the rail industry to remove all trains powered by diesel by 2040 and asked for the industry to provide a vision on how to meet this goal
  • In 2019, the Rail Decarbonisation Taskforce and RSSB published their final report on the pathways towards decarbonisation of UK railways favouring a mix of electric and hydrogen-powered technologies.
  • In 2019, the organisation Riding Sunbeams – an initiative between climate charity Possible and Community Energy South – pioneered the world’s first railway directly connected (into Direct-Current) to solar power at the Aldershot site (Hampshire, England)