I am the backbone of the economy - special livery for a class 90 electric locomotive in service with DB Cargo UK

DB Cargo UK grounds electric fleet

I am the backbone of the economy - special livery for a class 90 electric locomotive in service with DB Cargo UK Image DB Cargo UK media release

A negative reaction to Britain’s energy cost crisis has short-circuited the environmental ambitions of another rail freight carrier. This time, it’s DB Cargo UK that has has been forced to sideline an electric traction fleet on the grounds of cost. The fiasco of rocketing electricity prices has forced the Doncaster headquartered operator to pull the plug on its class 90 locomotive fleet. The twenty-four locomotives were reengineered from their original deployment on passenger express services.

Following on from last year’s temporary grounding by Freightliner of their similarly-sized fleet of electric locomotives, also class 90. DB Cargo UK has been forced to take even more drastic action, and has put its two-dozen class 90 locomotives on permanent discharge, offering them for sale or scrap. The company admits that the decision is down to operating costs, and that it does represent a blow to their own environmental imperatives.

Economic chaos forces switch to diesel

The news of the demise of DB Cargo’s fleet of Class 90 electric locomotives was widely rumoured on social media feeds and railway forums. The freight operator broke cover on Monday with a statement, attributed to chief executive, Andrea Rossi. “In the current economic climate, it simply does not make sense to incur the additional cost of running and maintaining the Class 90s when we have an alternative fleet of Class 66 locomotives at our disposal”, he said in a written update addressed to all colleagues at the company.

Andrea Rossi the chief executive of DB Cargo UK out in the field, wearing orange jacket and hard hat
A tough day at the office for Andrea Rossi, chief executive of DB Cargo UK

That the largest freight operator in the UK, with a huge reputation for environmental awareness, has been commercially forced to ditch electric traction for diesel, is a damning indictment of the economic situation in the UK. There has been widespread discontent at the UK government’s economic management, particularly in the energy sector, which has been subject to rampant inflation and huge price rises, particularly in the electricity generation market. This has led to the environmentally counter-productive measure of switching off electric locomotives from freight operations, and firing up diesels as replacement traction.

Facing acute economic challenges

The substitute Class 66 diesels, which are also being trialled by DB Cargo to run on alternative bio-fuels, are still capable of more environmentally friendly operations than other modes of transport, such as road trucks. However, the zero-emissions of electric traction cannot be bettered, but the additional cost of running them has been estimated by some observers at over one thousand pounds (1200 euro) per round trip on an average intermodal service. Late in 2021, Freightliner encountered a similar dilemma, and was forced to take their own fleet out of active service. This move by DB Cargo is however a permanent move.

DB Cargo UK Class 66 diesel standing in front of a GTR passenger EMU
In the face of unsustainable electricity costs, DB Cargo UK can fall back on its large fleet of diesel powered Class 66 locomotives. Passenger operators do not have that flexibility.

The cost of living crisis, which is emphasised by electricity prices for consumers and business, has not escaped the attention of DB Cargo staff. Many of them have been concerned about the apparent rescinding of their company’s greenest of green credentials. Rossi acknowledges their concerns, but says the operator has to look at using their assets differently. “We are facing acute economic challenges”, he said, but reiterated the company’s commitment to meeting the challenge of net-zero. “This does not mean our actions will be at the expense of decarbonisation, hence my continued lobbying for support for bio or synthetic fuels which we can use in our existing diesel fleet.”

DB Cargo UK has twenty-four examples of the marque, originally built in a batch of fifty for British Railways in the late 1980s. Twelve of the units have been in long-term storage, mainly at Crewe. There are over 150 examples of the workhorse Class 66 diesel in service with the company.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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