Finding improvements in sustainability and efficiency in the rail network

Rail travel compares quite favourably to other modes of transport when it comes to sustainability and carbon emissions. Nevertheless, there are multiple avenues of improvement, as Michael Nelson investigates. 

Compared to road and air transport, rail is much more sustainable in terms of CO2 emissions, energy consumption, use of space, and noise. According to the UK’s Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), the railways have a crucial role to play in helping the UK economy decarbonise by 2050. Despite making up around ten per cent of all distance travelled across the UK, rail is responsible for less than 2.5 per cent of total transport emissions and about 0.6 per cent of the UK’s total emissions. 

In order to stay ahead of the curve in this respect, however, operators and the network must continue to work on reducing, and ultimately eliminating, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through improved energy efficiency, new energy sources, and by removing diesel trains from the passenger network. They can also support wider transport sector decarbonisation by providing cost- and carbon-effective opportunities for modal shift for passengers and freight from other transport modes. 

Energy efficiency 

Peter Selway, rail marketing manager at Schneider Electric, says that, although the impact that rail can have in reducing our emissions is well recognised, the UK rail sector has thus far been slow to move to a more electrified, digitalised, and more sustainable rail infrastructure.  

“The funding and ambition to reach net zero is certainly there,” Selway asserts. “A more digitised infrastructure for rail could allow for better overall monitoring and optimisation of energy use. Pursuing efficiencies can also pave the road to reducing emissions, provided this is done in tandem with introducing a greater share of renewable energy to run electrified transport. 

“We have already seen, in energy generation, that renewables are now more plentiful and more affordable than non-renewable sources of energy. This gives countries a chance to electrify their railways and decarbonise the supply, while maintaining service reliability.” 

As the renewables sector continues to grow, both here in the UK and more globally, energy generation is also becoming more decentralised. While this should lead to better overall resilience in supply, there will still be a challenge in managing loads across such a complex distributed network of resources. Every part of the energy network, including major users such as rail networks, must play its part by digitising infrastructure so that energy supply can be better managed, and usage optimised. 

“The equipment along the rails can also be made greener, such as by eradicating the use of greenhouse gas SF6 in switchgear. Another example is the signalling system, where high eight-fold reductions in carbon can be made by embracing more compact equipment in situations where traditional models would not be cost effective.” 

This is exactly what Swiss Shielding Corporation (SSC) are striving towards. They have developed a lightweight polyethylene block foam, SSC-Q1, which is utilised in a rail insulation system that enables energy savings of up to 26 per cent in comparison to traditional materials. Due to its closed cell, crosslinked structure, the polyethylene foam performs efficiently and effectively in all climate zones, resisting moisture absorption to minimise the risk of condensation and associated mould growth. 

Announcing the product, an SSC spokesperson said: “If a vehicle is equipped with an open cell insulation and it becomes damp or wet – which will happen sooner or later – the material loses its insulation properties and energy costs rise dramatically. 

“SSC-Q1 is not influenced by moisture or temperature fluctuations, so thanks to the constant insulation properties, energy-efficient travel is possible.” 

Increasing the recyclability of rail components 

Of course, the environmental footprint of the railway industry includes things beyond energy and energy efficiency. Circularity is another important consideration, one with lasting consequences and impacts on how components are made, as well as the recyclability of those components.  

Nick Andrew, managing director at rail engineering solutions company CWE, says that refurbishing – rather than replacing – vital components can not only help improve efficiency and streamline the supply chain, it also supports the decarbonisation of rail.  

“Recycling parts minimises product obsolescence and saves emissions from manufacturing by reducing the number of parts that are made new,” explains Andrew. “It also often reduces the requirement for imported goods. For example, the majority of buffers are manufactured in Europe. Refurbishing removes the need for transporting parts, reducing both costs and carbon. 

“In addition, refurbishment can often be carried out on-site, meaning we can take services including welding for on-site structural repair. Such processes help rail operators to keep downtime low by removing the need to transport wagons offsite.” 

Where demand is high and margins are tight, innovations in refurbishment systems and processes will not only support the industry to decarbonise, it will also help rail organisations cut costs, increase productivity, and keep more of their rolling stock on the tracks, which is crucial to the ongoing health of the UK economy and its sustainability ambitions. 

According to figures from Network Rail, the railways bring £1.7 billion to the UK economy, with freight a key contributor alongside passengers. In fact, each freight train takes roughly 76 HGVs off of the UK’s roads, and carries more than £30 billion of goods around Britain each year, the equivalent of 1.66 HGV kilometres a year.  

As such, Andrew concludes that rail will play a crucial role in ‘levelling up’ Britain and spearheading a green industrial revolution, as more businesses rely on its cost-effective and environmentally-friendly credentials to transport goods and other materials around the country. 

Considering how rail transportation can help drive emissions down in the short term, and the role it could play in a societal shift towards a greener future, the rail industry must continue to strive for ever-greater efficiency and sustainability initiatives if it is to fulfil its potential in an increasingly decarbonised society. 

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