Rail freight operators are having to mothball their electric locomotives and switch back to diesel trains, which are slower and cause more pollution, because of the unfolding energy crisis.
The logistics firms say a surge in wholesale energy prices and an increase in the track access charges they pay has made the low-carbon trains uneconomical to operate.
The startling revelation comes just two weeks before the UK is due to host the Cop26 climate summit, and is bad news for decarbonisation plans – which rely on electrification.
The Rail Freight Group, the industry body that covers the sector, said a tripling of electricity costs had meant that “some operators have had to take the regrettable decision to temporarily move back to diesel locomotives”.
Noting that rail freight still emitted over three-quarters less carbon than road haulage even when using diesel locomotives, a spokesperson for the 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.”
Freightliner, which is one of the ‘big four’ rail freight companies and is among those to have switched back to diesel, described the move as a “difficult decision” and confirmed it had temporarily halted electric services to stay “cost effective”.
“As a result of soaring prices on the UK’s wholesale electricity market, the price Network Rail charges us to operate electric train services has increased by more than 210 per cent between September and October,” Freightliner said in a statement.
“This unprecedented rise in electricity charges has resulted in a sharp increase in the cost of operating electric freight services.
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“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 and supplies across the UK.”
At the weekend, Energy UK chief executive Emma Pinchbeck said the industry was “worried” about some of its commercial customers and that the consequences of rising prices were “unclear”.
A spokesperson for Network Rail, the government-owned company that manages rail infrastructure in Great Britain, said: “Electricity costs for Network Rail and passenger operators were negotiated some time ago and are fixed for this year and most of next.
“A few operators, however, are subject to the current market wholesale price of electricity, which Network Rail passes on directly at cost. Despite this, rail remains the most carbon-efficient means of moving large quantities of both freight and people around the country.”
Energy prices have surged in the UK because of a combination of factors, including surging demand as the Covid pandemic abates, limited supply from Russia, and a high reliance on gas in the UK without adequate buffer storage.