There is a movement towards adoption of electric propulsion on the roads and railways – but it may not be the best way forward


Network Rail and others have expressed the view that wider electrification of the railway network should be pursued. This is despite several curtailed schemes and a longstanding history of never achieving electrification on the scale achieved by other national railway networks. The current compromise of bi- and tri-mode trains overcomes the problem to some extent but the goal of comprehensive routes continues to elude. The Midland Main Line scheme has got further but still nowhere near the whole route. Similarly the Great Western scheme has made some progress but with much higher costs than expected and notable omissions of key sections.

On top of this, there remains the difficult question of where all the electricity will come from. The National Grid provides it and can be vulnerable to failure, an example being the total supply failure of a few years ago that resulted in no trains at all across a key part of the network including London Waterloo, the country’s busiest station. Stranding many thousands of people does not instil confidence in resilience – there is no fallback to keep trains running in the event of National Grid failure. London Underground formerly had its own power stations but also now relies on the same supply as everything else.

Supporting energy infrastructure

We know that demand for electricity continues to increase from households and businesses and that we have now managed without coal-fired supplies for a couple of months, a huge turnaround from the decades when coal powered everything. Apart from the vulnerability of supply, there is the testing issue of how additional capacity can be provided, especially with wind turbines and similar creating some hostility. The fact remains that further electrification of the railway network will require more electricity from somewhere and it is not yet clear where this might be sourced.

We have similar enthusiasm for electrifying buses. While in the UK we regard this as being new, it is tried and tested elsewhere, notably in China where electric buses have been operating for some 20 years. Sadly, we threw away the UK’s extensive trolleybus networks in the 1950s and 1960s which provided electric buses for most urban areas. While there has been interest in diesel-electric hybrid buses, 4,500 are in operation and we have reached a stage where their lifecycle is better understood and their reliability is not guaranteed over a longer period. Compare this with Chinese bus builder Yutong which has produced 103,000 fully electric buses which are happily performing in a wide variety of contexts; electric buses and coaches can now travel much further on an overnight charge. Electrifying the entire stock of road vehicles seems to be an aspiration shared by many but illustrates how vehicles such as buses offer the greatest benefits.

Starting with the premise that there is not enough resource to fulfil this dream of full electrification, we can then see how mass transit should be a prime candidate

Starting with the premise that there is not enough resource to fulfil this dream of full electrification, we can then see how mass transit should be a prime candidate – buses run everywhere and urban vehicle emissions are a problem. Those electric fleets already in place are showing what can be achieved to promote bus services as being environmentally beneficial, especially when compared to widespread car use. There may be other candidates such as delivery vehicles, waste vehicles and other ongoing services but the difficult question remains of how wholesale electrification could be achieved.

Dreaming of utopia

I have been saying for years that electrification of all road vehicles is not achievable because of limited power generation and distribution. The attention drawn to electric cars would be better placed on mass transit where the benefits extend beyond individuals or small groups. This is a subject taken up recently by the publication by the Global Warming Policy Foundation of a paper by Professor Michael Kelly of Cambridge University, formerly chief scientific advisor to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Here he presents some figures to illustrate the scale of the problem – the UK’s largest hydropower energy storage plant at Dinorwic would be capable of charging 60,000 cars, just 0.25% of the UK fleet. This means that 70% of current energy production would be needed to provide power for an all-electric road fleet. Added to this is the demand for electrical heating in homes, workplaces and the rest of the building stock. The utopia requires the whole electrical distribution network to be upgraded on a huge scale.

The rest of the world can look at Britain and choose whether to laugh or weep

Turning to the raw materials for future battery production, the UK alone would require 207,900 tonnes of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate, at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium and over 2.3 million tonnes of copper. Put another way, that its broadly twice the amount of cobalt available currently, three quarters of the global production of lithium, nearly the entire production of neodymium and more than half the world’s copper production. Reconciling this with potential demand is impossible and it also glosses over where these resources come from, who controls production and their cost. I’m no physicist but reality and rhetoric are miles apart and likely to stay that way. Or, as Professor Kelly puts it: “The rest of the world can look at Britain and choose whether to laugh or weep.”

While the blind charge towards electric vehicles is being led by the Committee on Climate Change and has picked up populist support along the way, this is spearheaded by aspiration with no sense of reality. When resources are finite, we need to think about how they can be best used (i.e. directed towards good causes rather than individual units for movement such as electric cars). This is a particular need in economies where there are huge disparities between the richest who can afford excursions into technology and the poorest majority for whom an electric car is far beyond any realistic possibility. Mass transit in most cities is the only means of equating personal mobility with realism. Our own government needs to be completely redirected to harness the opportunities for mass transit rather than encouraging the production of electric cars. The current surge to provide charging points all over the place has highlighted how having no standard plug-in mechanism hardly helps. The idea of trailing electric cables from homes to charge up cars in the street is implausible and rightly has attracted criticism; no doubt the more resourceful in some areas will find ways of diverting cables to other uses anyway.

Redirecting efforts

The concept of universal electrification is fatally flawed and instead we should be thinking on the one hand of how to generate and distribute electricity and on the other hand think about how we can contain demand. The mentality that endless electricity consumption is acceptable needs to be challenged – charging iPads, phones and everything else is not without its consequences. Needless lighting, air conditioning and heating all take their toll on capacity but never is this addressed. A post-industrial (and post-pandemic) world might be more concerned about environmental futures but no doubt energy consumption will reach crisis point before anything is done. As we have seen over recent months, a drastic reduction in aviation and car use may become more of a desirable state instead of promoting a capitalist lust for consumption. Then we can direct our limited resources to mass transit and other uses to benefit society as a whole.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the UK Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (, Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group, Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd and a former Chair of the Transport Planning Society. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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