The railways are working to become more sustainable

It is often said that trains are a sustainable form of transport with very low CO2 emissions because trains are mostly powered by electricity. But what are steps that the railway sector is taking to be more sustainable, not only in terms of emissions but also biodiversity and noise pollution?

As recent events have shown, the railways often suffer from the vagaries of the weather, such as floods, dramatic landslides or simply from trees and objects falling onto the tracks. This has led infrastructure managers to take emergency measures and at the same time to develop preventive plans.

But sustainability in the railway sector does not only mean taking preventive measures against extreme weather conditions. It also means producing rail services in a much more sustainable way, which is a long-term programme.

Sustainable infrastructure

It is clearly impossible in the railway sector to do without steel (rails and trains), copper (cables, electrical equipment), quarry products (ballast) and a number of PVC or plastic components. All these products should be produced in a more sustainable way in the future, but this is the responsibility of global industrial suppliers.

Within its scope, however, the railway can impose sustainability requirements on its suppliers and contractors. This is happening on HS2, the British high-speed line under construction.

One section should be elevated 2 metres above the original plans. The main contractor, Balfour Beatty Vinci, has abandoned proposals to use concrete retaining walls, opting for a V-shaped open cutting with grass slopes instead. This reduces excavation work and cutting the need to excavate 150,000 cubic metres of soil and requires 60,000 cubic metres less concrete and steel, to the benefit of the surrounding nature.

Another example of sustainability on the new HS2 line is the sorting of excavated soil and the transport thereof by train rather than by trucks.

In Belgium, Infrabel has integrated environmental criteria into its requirement specifications. Infrabel wants to go beyond the price and give an advantage to the product that offers the greatest benefits for the planet. Limiting the production of CO2 (whether in the manufacture or transport of the material) and improving the circularity of the product counted for 40 percent of the points. The “cost” dimension now only accounts for another 60 percent.

Lumo(photo Infrabel)

These criteria, combined with a very competitive price, gave the Belgian’s supplier De Bonte the advantage. This company produces green sleepers at a rate of 25,000 pieces per year for 8 years at the Baudour site in the Mons region. It does so with a different process: instead of 1400 degrees, the sulphur concrete only requires a temperature of 140 degrees to shape the sleeper. The production of CO2 is thus greatly reduced (i.e. by 40 percent) from 75 kilogrammes CO2/ sleeper to 45 kilogrammes CO2/ sleeper.


Sustainability also concerns the immediate environment of the railway tracks, and not only the construction of materials. The platforms, trenches or embankments of these tracks were sometimes built more than 100 or 150 years ago.

Since long time, there have been large changes in vegetation associated with the railway, which has resulted in the loss of biodiverse, flower-rich habitats. In this view, Network Rail in UK, for example, has committed to end net loss in biodiversity on its land. ÖBB in Austria, too, has a programme in place to retain a biodiverse environment.

Network rail has partnered with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) to use high-resolution imagery from satellites and aircraft to produce a detailed national map of all the habitats found alongside the rail network, which dates back almost 200 years. This enables UKCEH has predicted what animals and plants are likely to be present in these lineside habitats including grasslands, heathlands and woodland.

Quieter trains

Trains that pass through villages and residential areas do not emit CO2 but a lot of noise, especially goods trains. Combating noise is also an important sustainability criterion.

It is therefore necessary to produce – and adapt – wagons to make them quieter, more energy-efficient and more economical than those used so far. In Germany, the leasing company VTG and DB Cargo have been awarded an “Innovativer Güterwagen” research contract by the Federal Ministry of Transport.

SBB Cargo in Switzerland is testing low-wear and low-noise rolling stock with innovative components. Wear and tear is also part of the railway’s sustainability. The less wear and tear there is, the fewer parts need to be replaced. Innovative parts must themselves be produced with sustainability in mind.

These few examples – for there are many more – show that the railway has many opportunities to make the sector sustainable, beyond electricity consumption and measures to counteract the vagaries of the weather.

Want to know more about sustainability in the rail sector? Join us at RailTech Europe this month. Click here for more information. 

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Author: Frédéric de Kemmeter

Frédéric de Kemmeter is signalling technician and railway policy observer.

1 comment op “The railways are working to become more sustainable”

bönström bönström|18.06.22|19:37

The safest and less energy demanding mode, yes, but still, railways is a device, that meet competition.
Other modes, sustainable, by air, by sea, even the on road trucks, decisively upgrade, all the way, for reduced costs… (On Time arrivals are more important than ever, etc.!)
Any old technicality, “state of the art”, now plaguing, disturbing, shall be outed! Short heavy trains are better than long. Noise, symtom of “voids” and undamped, hung sleepers – shall be attended – at root, etc.!

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