William Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Siemens Mobility Limited, looks at what needs to be done to hit Scotland’s challenging transport decarbonisation targets.

I think it’s fair to say that 2020 is a year most of us would prefer to forget. But it’s also probably a year that has changed the way we work, live and travel forever.

It’s also the year in which Transport Secretary Michael Matheson unveiled a decarbonisation strategy for the Scottish railway. Whilst lockdown restrictions on travel had already started to ease, most continued to work from home and demand for trains remained very low. This gave Matheson some time to announce what he saw as being the future of the Scottish rail industry and the part it would play in net zero.

For Scotland this was a real stake in the ground. A public announcement that the country was leading the way on transport decarbonisation and that it wasn’t afraid of challenging targets.


The real question is whether those 2035 targets are achievable. We all know it’s easy to say one thing and then have to consider changing our minds. If COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s the use of the words ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unpredictable’.

I’ll be honest, the plan is ambitious. Is it doable? The answer is yes, if Government and industry work collaboratively, but speed is essential. Research that was undertaken by YouGov on our behalf in April 2020 highlighted that 44% of Scottish people preferred to drive their car than use public transport and 20% said they would use public transport less as COVID-restrictions eased / were over. That’s a significant chunk of the population who would already choose their personal cars rather than more environmentally friendly trains.

Now you could say that given Scotland’s physical geographical make up those results aren’t too surprising, but if we’re to meet those ambitious plans then we need to go further and faster to ‘green’ the railway AND encourage people to use it.

It is possible. Norway managed to reduce their transport emissions by 10% in just one year. However, this was a result of a carrot and stick approach by the Norwegian Government making it clear that a combination of policy and legislation is required. So for Scotland, employing a range of technologies and policies to drive decarbonisation further and faster, without delay, is essential. Essentially this means viewing the railway as a whole system – including trains, track and signalling - and using the latest innovations.

From information released by Transport Scotland, we’ve identified a number of major routes, currently operating diesel trains, for replacement and upgrade by 2035. This includes a combination of full and discontinuously electrified routes (where trains run on electric power where it is available, and switch to an alternative source as necessary) and the introduction of hydrogen and hydrogen / battery bi-mode trains to help replace those ‘dirty diesels’.

The Scottish government’s current decarbonisation plans already include greener new trains for the West Highland lines, the Far North and Kyle of Lochalsh lines and the Stranraer line. But is that enough? In our view more can be done. There are a further four railway lines where partial electrification, using green bi-mode trains, could be used as an interim solution to full electrification and help Scotland meet their targets more quickly (the Fife Circle, the Borders Railway, the Highland Mainline and the Aberdeen Mainline).

We’re fast approaching COP26 and the eyes of the world will be on Scotland. We have an unprecedented challenge – there’s that word again - in living, working and travelling in a post-COVID era. Frighteningly we’re seeing road travel levels (and as a result reduced air quality) surpass those pre-pandemic. Greta Thunberg would not be proud of transport’s role in climate change mitigation but we can make a difference if we act now.

We have to make it easy for people to make greener travel choices, from the first mile to the last.  An enhanced passenger experience, where people have the information they need to book their whole journey at their fingertips and feel safe and well looked after, is key.

And guess what, transport has long been a barometer of economic health so enabling people and goods to travel more efficiently and more cleanly has other positive implications too. I think that’s what they call a win win.