STEPPING up investment in rail infrastructure could substantially reduce transport sector carbon emissions and energy consumption, according to a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on January 30.

According to The Future of Rail report, which was prepared in cooperation with the International Union of Railways (UIC), rail is one of the most energy efficient transport modes but is often neglected in public debate.

The report notes that rail is responsible for 8% of global passenger transport and 7% of freight transport but represents only 2% of total transport energy demand.

Rail consumes less than 600,000 barrels of oil per day representing around 0.6% of global oil use, and around 290 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, around 1% of global demand. Fossil fuel combustion from rail operations accounts for 0.3% of the global total.

“The rail sector can provide substantial benefits for the energy sector as well as for the environment,” says IEA executive director, Dr Fatih Birol. “By diversifying energy sources and providing more efficient mobility, rail can lower transport energy use and reduce carbon dioxide and local pollutant emissions.”

Under the base scenario considered in the report, global annual investment in rail infrastructure will reach $US 315bn in 2050 based on projects already planned or under construction.

In this scenario, the rate of infrastructure expansion is fastest in the urban rail sector. The report notes that the total global length of metro lines under construction or planned for the next five years is double the length of any five-year period between 1970 and 2015. As a result, passenger numbers on the world’s urban networks are projected to be 2.7 times higher in 2050 than they are today.

The strongest growth is in India and southeast Asia, where there will be an almost seven-fold increase in ridership. China will see a three-fold increase with a 25% rise in Japan and 45% in the European Union (EU).

In the high-speed sector, China will account for nearly half of new line construction over the next 30 years. Correspondingly, passenger numbers on the Chinese high-speed network will triple by 2050, rising 85% in Japan and 66% in the EU. The report highlights massive growth on India’s main line network, where construction of new infrastructure will support “volumes of passenger activity that, by 2050, are unparalleled anywhere in the world.” India is expected to account for 40% of global passenger rail journeys by 2050.

Rail electricity use is forecast to reach nearly 700TWh by 2050 and 97% of passenger rail movements and two-thirds of freight will be on electrified lines.

However, despite the projected growth, the report finds that rail’s share of the passenger transport market will remain static relative to road and air transport.

High Rail Scenario

To explore how the benefits of rail might be optimised, the report puts forward a so-called High Rail Scenario. This is built on three pillars:

  • minimising cost per-km by maximising network usage, removing technical barriers, and integrating seamlessly with other modes
  • maximising revenues, for example by exploiting land value capture around stations to finance rail investment, and
  • implementing policies that ensure all modes pay for the impacts they generate through road pricing, fuel taxes and congestion charging in cities.

Under the High Rail Scenario, policies to promote rail and encourage operational efficiency across all modes spurs huge growth in rail traffic, reducing air, car and two/three-wheeler traffic by 11.5 trillion passenger-km a year by 2050, while road freight movements would be reduced by 7.4 trillion tonne-km. Electricity demand would be 620TWh higher than the Base Scenario in 2050 but overall transport energy demand would be 15% lower, with 90% of the reduction in oil consumption.

Passenger rail activity is projected to reach a level 60% above the base scenario in 2050 with a 14% rise in freight activity. Urban rail usage could be 2.6 times higher than the base scenario and high-speed traffic could be 85% higher.

The global high-speed rail network would more than triple by 2050, while the metro network would grow more than fourfold to around 150,000km, including 43,000km in China alone. Passenger-km would increase fivefold on metros and more than fourfold on high-speed lines over the period.

Total global passenger rail traffic would reach 15 trillion-km, exceeding the base scenario by 6 trillion-km. The greatest shift would be in urban transport, where a rising proportion of short trips fuels the growth of shared mobility and non-motorised modes that feed into rail.

Continued urbanisation, especially in developing economies, would help to fuel urban rail growth. Rail’s share of urban passenger transport activity would rise from less than 2% in 2017 to 3% in 2025, meeting the UITP’s goal of doubling public transport’s market share between 2006 and 2025. By 2050, the share of rail in total urban passenger-km exceeds 6%, three-times the share in the Base Scenario. Cars account for 37% of urban passenger-km, down from 47% in the Base Scenario.

The High Rail Scenario would require global annual investment of $US 770bn in 2050, $US 290bn or 60% higher than the base scenario, although global road infrastructure investment would fall by around $US 300bn. Nearly all of the additional investment would go towards urban rail ($US 190bn) and high-speed ($US 70bn). The IEA forecasts that these investments could cut global fuel expenditure by around $US 450bn in 2050, including $US 64bn in India alone.

“The three pillars that underpin the High Rail Scenario - minimising service costs, maximising revenues and ensuring that the costs of all modes of transport reflect infrastructure needs and societal and environmental impacts - all improve the economic competitiveness of rail,” the IEA says. “Ensuring high passenger and freight throughput is also instrumental to achieve this condition.”

The IEA suggests the Green Bond market could reduce the cost of financing capital-intensive rail projects by lowering interest rates while providing investors with the opportunity to back environmentally-sustainable schemes with a high degree of transparency. The Green Bond Market has grown rapidly since the first bond was issued in 2007, reaching $US 1.2 trillion in 2018.

The report says that “aggressive, strategic deployment of rail” would enable global transport CO2 emissions to peak in the late 2030s. If the High Rail Scenario became a reality, oil consumption could fall by 10 million barrels a day by 2050, with a 0.6 gigaton reduction in CO2 emissions and a 220 kiloton drop in particulate emissions. “The High Rail Scenario alone does not achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement, but the substantial emissions reduction achieved make rail an essential part of a more comprehensive energy and transport strategy,” the report states.

An increased reliance on rail can promote broader accessibility, enhanced safety and reduced costs, according to the report. However, this will also need to be weighed against the need for more flexible lower-density transport in suburban and rural areas. “One key to exploiting the advantages of rail will be to recognise its limitations and the trade-offs between investments in rail versus other alternative forms of mobility,” the report concludes. With the need to accommodate rapidly-growing urban populations and avert a global climate disaster, politicians will need to move quickly and decisively to build sustainable transport systems that work for all. The IEA has offered a glimpse of how that might be achieved.