The backbone of energy security: The role of rail

In the current climate of scrutiny regarding the United Kingdom’s energy security, the recently published House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report, ‘Accelerating the transition from fossil fuels and securing energy supplies’[1], serves as a wake-up call.

Among the myriad elements that contribute to energy security, rail infrastructure emerges as an indispensable but often underrated player.

The transport sector’s substantial dependence on oil amplifies the need for alternative, more sustainable means of transportation.

Welcome to the first instalment in a three-part series exploring the intricate relationship between rail infrastructure and the United Kingdom’s energy security. In this opening article, we’ll unpack why the rail network is essential in bolstering the nation’s energy security, particularly in light of the country’s commitment to greener, more sustainable energy solutions. The subsequent articles in the series will focus on how electric vehicles’ linkage to the rail network can further strengthen the UK’s energy security and the electrification of the rail network and its potential as a renewable energy powerhouse.

Recent statistics further fuel this discussion, revealing that despite a 2% increase in CO2e emissions for passenger and freight rail between April 2021 and March 2022, the rail network represents a comparatively more sustainable mode of transport.

This article delves into the nuances of why the rail network is so crucial in enhancing the UK’s energy security.

Rail Infrastructure: A Closer Look at Emissions

The latest data on the consumption of diesel and electricity in the UK’s mainline rail operations presents a nuanced picture. There was an overall 2% rise in estimated CO2e emissions, reaching 2,282 kilotonnes for the year from April 2021 to March 2022. Although this might initially appear concerning, it’s important to dissect these figures further.

When normalised, passenger emissions for electric trains were recorded at 358g CO2e per electric vehicle kilometre, substantially lower than the 1,400g CO2e per diesel vehicle kilometre. What’s even more telling is the drop in emissions from electric trains despite an overall rise in electricity consumption. This shift is due to the electricity generation landscape gradually moving towards greener, more renewable sources.

Why Rail Is Key to Energy Security

The question then arises: Why is the rail network so pivotal to the UK’s energy security? There are several reasons.

Reduced Dependence on Oil: As highlighted in the Environmental Audit Committee report, transport is heavily oil-dependent. Transitioning to electrified rail networks, particularly for freight, can significantly reduce this dependence.

Flexibility for Renewable Integration: The electric rail network is more adaptable to integrating renewable energy sources, as evidenced by the decreasing emissions despite increased electricity consumption. This makes it easier for the UK to pivot towards renewable sources for a considerable portion of its transport energy needs.

Strategic Energy Distribution: Railways have long been a part of the energy distribution framework, transporting coal, oil, and equipment for renewable energy projects. Modernising this infrastructure could make it a more efficient and less carbon-intensive means of distributing energy resources across the country.

Energy-efficient Transport: According to the statistics, electrified rail is far more energy-efficient in terms of emissions per kilometre compared to diesel-based road transport. This inherent efficiency makes rail a preferred choice for the green transition, aligning with both national and international goals.

Policy Integration and Future Investments

While initiatives like electrified tracks are a step in the right direction, they are far from sufficient. As underscored by an Environmental Audit Committee report, the existing policy framework—particularly the British Energy Security Strategy—has so far paid inadequate attention to making the transport system more energy-efficient.

Significant investments are needed in rail infrastructure modernisation, including advanced signalling systems and track electrification, to align these efforts more coherently with broader energy security and environmental sustainability goals.

The rail network is not just a means of transport; it’s a crucial element in the fabric of the United Kingdom’s energy security. The network’s ability to provide a less carbon-intensive form of transportation renders it invaluable in the quest for a greener future. In light of the recent emissions statistics, rail transport stands out as an effective vehicle for the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Incorporating rail more significantly into the UK’s energy security strategy could be a game-changing move in meeting the country’s climate objectives and fortifying its energy security in the long term.


  1. ^ ‘Accelerating the transition from fossil fuels and securing energy supplies’ (