How can the rail industry achieve true sustainability?

May 10 2021
Rail wash

Across industries and the world over, sustainability is the word on everybody’s lips. Organisations of all types are grappling with the challenge of switching to greener forms of energy consumption while keeping efficiency and their level of service as high as possible.

En masse, consumers and governments are now demanding visible action be taken to build a more sustainable world. The rail industry is one such sector where operators and manufacturers are under pressure to implement long-lasting reforms. But with rail already viewed as one of the cleanest modes of transport, why does this pressure still exist, what more does the industry need to do and how can it reach true sustainability?

Does rail really have a sustainability problem?

Out of all of the different forms of transport, rail is the greenest (excluding walking or cycling). It’s estimated that rail accounts for only 2% of the world’s transport energy demand and as little as 0.3% of the world’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Indeed, the carbon footprint of an average National Rail train in the UK is around 370% lower per passenger km than that of a petrol car. The prevailing wisdom is that the more people travel by train, the lower the CO2 emissions from the transport sector. This is why huge rail-building projects like HS2 are considered by many to be so key to the battle against climate change.

But it is for precisely this reason that the rail industry still needs to be more sustainable. Because governments around the world are relying on new rail projects to take the strain off the roads and the skies, every train needs to be built and run in as sustainable a way as possible - to keep emissions to an absolute minimum as well as to demonstrate to the public the green credentials of rail.

Much of the battle concerns the types of trains being used. While rail as a whole is considered extremely sustainable, diesel trains are known to produce around twice as much CO2 as electric ones. Diesel trains still make up a not-insignificant percentage of rail stock in the UK - especially in the freight category. And in 2019-20, the amount of diesel consumed by freight trains in the UK actually increased by 12.5% to 172 million litres.

Other factors are at play too, such as how the electricity used to power trains is produced (grids that rely more on coal are obviously more harmful to the environment than those that rely on renewable energy). Maintenance is a big consideration too; trains that need lots of resources to keep them operational add to their carbon footprint in this way, while large amounts of water and electricity are required to wash them regularly. Cutting wastage in these areas is vital.

How is rail moving towards sustainability?

Governments, operators, manufacturers and other bodies are coming together to prioritise rail sustainability. In the UK, Network Rail’s Sustainability Strategy includes several key targets:

  • Reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (2045 in Scotland)
  • Prioritise continual improvements to air quality
  • Prepare a rail infrastructure to minimise climate change impacts by 2050
  • Be in a position to reuse or redeploy all surplus resources by 2035 in pursuit of a circular model

In addition, the UK government plans to phase out all diesel-only trains by 2040. The greenest alternatives could even include hydrogen trains and battery-powered trains, which promise even greater reductions in emissions, although these are currently considered fringe initiatives.

Achieving water sustainability is also a key industry target - not just in respects to washing trains but the water that is used for other purposes such as for toilets and catering. More hygienic and less polluting options like Controlled Emission Toilets are now considered must-have.

But rail is an industry where you must move quickly, and any moves towards sustainability must be rigorously planned. Trains are designed to serve for up to fifty years and any technology used now must be ready for the requirements of the future. In this regard, the 2020s will be a key decade for setting out a blueprint for a truly sustainable rail industry that will stand the test of time.

Wilcomatic Rail are here to deliver more sustainable water usage

At Wilcomatic, we’re experts in all things rail wash. We’ve deployed over 40 systems for rail depots the world over, each packed with technology to deliver faster, cleaner, greener washes. Our rail wash solutions prioritise the most efficient use of resources possible - in fact, up to 95% of the water in our water recycling machines can be harvested and reused, limiting your fleet’s impact on the environment as well as your wash costs.

We build solutions based on the precise needs of your depot, and our systems are adaptable for all types of rail transport:

  • High speed systems
  • Light / heavy metro
  • Trams
  • APMs
  • Mono-rail System

To find out more about how Wilcomatic can serve your depot with a cutting-edge wash system that sets you up for a sustainable future too, get in touch with our team.

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