Andy Bagnall: Ministers must recognise rail’s crucial role in hitting Britain’s Net Zero target

22 Sep

Andy Bagnall is the Director General at the Rail Delivery Group (RDG).

Today, Britain’s train companies and Network Rail are coming together to give the classic double-arrows rail logo a green makeover and to declare that ‘We Mean Green’.

The aim is to remind people that while world leaders will soon gather in Glasgow to, we hope, make vital commitments to cut carbon emissions, there are choices we can make as individuals too, right now, that will help towards saving the planet.

Transport – how we get from A to B – is the single biggest source of pollution in Britain. Meeting the target of reaching net zero will, quite simply, be impossible without radical changes to how we move people and goods around.

Attention tends to focus on the new technology that will help tackle the challenge of decarbonisation. The assumption seems to be that with the right innovation we can all continue driving and flying much as we do today. In fact, behaviour change is going to be needed and there is no time to lose. A fantastically green form of transport already exists but it relies on people and businesses doing things differently.

As new commuting habits start to form with the return to work this autumn, there has never been a more important time to encourage people out of cars and on to trains. Recent research for the Rail Delivery Group found that just a 20 per cent shift from rail to road would create an extra million tonnes of carbon emissions annually.

This is because when people choose the train, they cut their carbon emissions by two thirds compared to going by car. The goods carried on a single freight train take 76 lorries off the road. The humble train’s green credentials are beyond doubt – while they accounted for ten per cent of journeys, pre-pandemic, trains were responsible for just one per cent of transport-related emissions.

Of course, the train will not be an option for every journey and for shorter distances, people should look to walk or cycle if they can. Yet in the many instances where taking the train is a viable alternative to more polluting modes, train companies and government have a responsibility to make rail an easier, more attractive choice.

If we are honest, that’s not always been the case. While we have spent billions of pounds upgrading trains and tracks, installed tens of thousands of bike spaces in stations, and gone to great lengths to reassure passengers, in the face of the pandemic, that train travel is safe, there is much more to do.

Research has shown that around a third of people for whom trains are an option are put off by the complexity of rail fares. That’s why train companies have been working with the government, encouraging them to radically reform the fares system so that it is easier for people to get a good deal, to know they have paid the best price and to be sure they have the right ticket.

Then there is the thorny issue of cost. While reforming the fares system will go a long way to addressing negative perceptions about the value for money of train travel, the Government has choices to make about the balance between passengers and taxpayers when it comes to who pays for the railways. This choice is made every year when government decides the increase to regulated fares, such as season tickets.

While many people never use the train, everyone benefits from it, whether it’s reduced road congestion, cleaner air, or goods getting to supermarket shelves promptly by freight train. Over the last decade and a half, however, governments of all colours have sought to shift more of the price of rail travel away from taxpayers generally and onto passengers. While car drivers have benefitted from a decade long freeze in fuel duty, and the Government is considering cutting air passenger duty for domestic flights, taxes now make up 40 per cent of the cost of electricity to power trains.

These are not policies that encourage green travel choices. Government should take a holistic approach and adopt a ‘polluter pays’ principle towards transport levies across modes to encourage more people to take the train and more companies to choose rail to move their goods.

As train companies, we believe passionately in the potential for our sector to help tackle the climate crisis. We’re not resting on our existing green credentials though. We are replacing older, more polluting trains for newer, greener models, and we’ve published a high-level strategy to bring greener power – whether electric, battery or hydrogen – to the tracks.

That’s why, today, as we look ahead the UN climate summit, Britain’s rail industry is confident in declaring that We Mean Green.

Simon Jupp: To support regional airports, ministers should cut Air Passenger Duty

19 Mar

Simon Jupp is MP for East Devon and a member of the Transport Select Committee. 

The Prime Minister’s desire to cut air passenger duty on domestic flights is exactly the boost our regional airports need. Operators will no doubt welcome the announcement last week of a consultation to examine the possibilities of creating a new lower rate or an exemption for returning flights.

On 5th March 2020, the largest regional airline in the UK and Europe, Flybe, collapsed into administration. The impact of coronavirus on flight bookings proved the last straw for its already precarious finances. The first major casualty for ‘UK plc’.

We are still picking up the pieces a year on. Some new operators have taken on the more profitable routes. Other routes, ill-served by road and rail, could remain cut-off long after travel restrictions relax in a few months’ time.

Environmental lobby groups often tell me this is no bad thing. What is the point in encouraging cheap ‘carbon-guzzling’ domestic air travel, when we could focus our efforts on improving road and rail connections and make sure customers pay cheaper rail fares and less at the pumps, they ask? Coronavirus has just accelerated an unavoidable process already in motion, so the thinking goes in some quarters.

But affordable and frequent domestic flights are vital to the UK in many ways.

Without them, we risk irreparable damage to trade, travel and business across the whole country, and connectivity between all four nations of the UK. Aviation remains a popular mode for British journeys over often long distances. In 2019, some 9.7 million passengers flew between England and Scotland, with Heathrow to Edinburgh being the most popular route.

Between English airports, it was 2.3 million. A flight from Leeds-Bradford to the beaches of Newquay takes one hour, compared six hours by road or eight hours by rail. M1 upgrades, HS2 or Northern Powerhouse rail when completed are unlikely to drastically bring those times down.

Regional airports don’t just help commercial passengers get from A to B quicker, they also assist with vital services which help save lives. With passenger numbers down around 90 per cent, these airports are still stepping up to the plate in playing a critical role in supporting our national effort to combat coronavirus, be it providing supplies for the NHS, army, and emergency services or ensuring mail continues to flow. To give an example, the Channel Islands continue to fly healthcare patients to Southampton for some urgent treatments.

Simply staying open can cost millions a week in fixed costs and regulatory fees. These are vital Public Service Obligation routes, in all but name, and need support to match.

Domestic air travel can become greener as we continue to decarbonise domestic aviation, including through mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuels. Unlike international flights, domestic aviation emissions are included in national carbon budgets. Indeed, greenhouse gas emissions from domestic flights make up less than one per cent of total domestic transport emissions.

Without reform, British air taxes will perversely hit our tourist industry hard as it looks to bounce back this summer. As the Prime Minister wrote last week, someone flying from Belfast to London and back pays more tax than someone flying from Dublin to London and back. That is because our Air Passenger Duty rate – a tax on flying introduced in the 1990s purely as a revenue raiser – is the highest in Europe at £13 per leg for short-haul travel.

For a long time, industry calls to correct this have fallen on deaf ears. Hearing this call is all the more important now that domestic holidays look like a safe bet in 2021.

A review into domestic Air Passenger Duty as part of the wider Hendy Review on UK connectivity, with Boris Johnson signalling his support for a cut, is extremely welcome. There are two options: to cut it to £7 from the existing minimum of £13, or to remove the return leg fare. A tax holiday for new UK routes could also better use airport capacity and help form established services.

Reforming Air Passenger Duty remains the quickest tool in the Government’s arsenal to get the country truly moving again and reintegrate the four nations of the Union. Now firmly out of the scope of EU competition law, it is time to crack on.

When Flybe collapsed last year, a dozen or so MPs with regional airports in their backyard spoke passionately in Parliament about jobs and connectivity lost overnight. I highlighted the impact the collapse of Flybe, which was based at Exeter Airport, in my East Devon constituency. Yet, some 110 MPs represent catchment areas for these non-London airports. We can, and should, shout louder. Ultimately, we cannot level-up our communities if we level-off their vital transport links.