Railway workers on tracks Melle-Zottegem in Belgium, photo: Infrabel

‘The responsibility for sustainable construction lies mainly with rail infrastructure managers’


Using materials that last a long time and executing the right maintenance measure at the right time are crucial for a maximum lifecycle of the rail infrastructure. According to Matthias Landgraf, researcher at the Graz University of Technology, Austria, those are the greatest gains that can be made in minimising the environmental impact of railway infrastructure.

Despite the fact that rail is one of the cleanest forms of transport already, certainly compared to road and air transport, this does not mean that the sector can rest on its laurels, says Matthias Landgraf. At RailTech Europe, he gives a presentation on mitigation of the environmental impact of the rail infrastructure. But what causes environmental impacts within the railway system and where lies the potential for mitigation?

Rolling stock

“Naturally, the first thoughts that come in mind are railway lines that are not yet electrified yet, 46 percent  in EU-28. There are already solutions and first applications with alternative propulsion systems in order to guarantee fossil free train operation on lines which may not be electrified. But we have to keep in mind that also shunting, freight transport and especially work trains are still diesel-powered. When we think further than railway operation, there is an issue within railways which is widely neglected up to now: railway infrastructure. Production, construction and maintenance of railway infrastructure is an essential cause for environmental impacts and therefore has huge potential for mitigation.”

Building tunnels, for example, has an enormous environmental impact, according to Landgraf. This is due to the large amount of concrete that is used and the diesel-powered machines, for example. “The impact per kilometer of tunnels is therefore quite large. When we look at it on a net-wide basis, then railway track has by far the highest impacts as we have many more kilometers of track than tunnels – even in an alpine country like Austria. This is mainly due to the production of concrete and steel as the raw materials have to be mined, processed and transported. Then there is the production process and the construction, maintenance and renewal of the infrastructure itself, of course.”


The greatest potential for limiting the environmental impact lies in the lifespan of the components that are used, Landgraf knows. “When we look at rails in narrow curves for example, service lives of ten years and lower are common. But with innovative and high-quality products as well as the right approach to maintenance it can be much longer. Doubling the service life of rails means that only half of the masses need to be produced, transported and installed. Innovation in construction and materials, but also maintenance are therefore extremely important.”

One of the examples Landgraf mentions is the use of ‘Under sleeper pads’. These rubber mats under concrete sleepers are intended to dampen vibrations and noise, but also ensure a 30 percent longer lifespan railway track. “By damping the interaction between the various components, mainly concrete sleepers and ballast, less maintenance is required and service life is prolonged. This is not only a major gain in lifecycle costs but also environmental impacts – a perfect example for sustainability.”

Rail ballast

In addition, a lot of research is being done into the sustainable production of concrete and steel. Many sustainable approaches are already state-of-the-art in railways. For example, when we look at ballast cleaning machines within track renewal, whereby the ballast is cleaned and reused on site. “There is already a proportion of 40 to 70 percent reuse of ballast in Austria, but this is also done a lot in Germany, the Netherlands and many more. This on-site reuse is a perfect example of circular economy and prevents a lot of transports and preserves a scarce resource.”

Landgraf himself started in 2015 with research into the environmental impacts of the rail infrastructure. “25 years ago, Prof. Veit started at TU Graz to conduct lifecycle research in the rail sector in regards to life cycle costs. So there is a lot of knowledge about the subject of lifecycle considerations at our institute. That’s why it was the logical next step to include environmental impacts of railway infrastructure as well to have a broad basis for decision making. And now we see that the worldwide interest for this topic is rapidly growing.”

Lots of data

Many of the factors mentioned by Landgraf that play a role in the environmental impacts of rail infrastructure may be obvious, but expressing them in figures requires a lot of research and data processing. The next question is which parties should do something with this information. “The responsibility lies not only with contractors or manufacturers, but especially with the rail infrastructure managers and regulating bodies. They will not only have to promote environmentally conscious construction and maintenance, but also provide the tools for it.”

The cost factor should be an integral part of any initiative to reduce environmental impacts, Landgraf believes. “Mitigating environmental impacts must become a business case in which it is necessary that you can achieve cost savings with it. It must become a permanent part of every tender and be factored into the price. There already is awareness among the infrastructure managers, now we have to find the right tools and use them.”

Matthias Landgraf is one of the speakers at RailTech Europe Live from March 30 to April 1, 2021. For more information and registration, visit railtechlive.com. Everyone working at railway operators, infrastructure managers, and academics & policy makers can join the event for free.

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Author: Paul van den Bogaard

Paul van den Bogaard is editor of SpoorPro, a sister title of RailTech

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