But several obstacles must be overcome in order to achieve this, not least funding a huge uplift in rail capacity. These are the main conclusions of the International Union of Railways' (UIC) energy efficiency conference hosted by SNCB and Infrabel in Antwerp, Belgium, on June 16-19.
Transport is the largest cause of air pollution in many cities costing more than 5% of GDP. Fuel consumption has doubled since 1970 and transport now consumes 25% of world energy, 90% of which comes from fossil fuels. Transport is responsible for 23% of global CO2 emissions and this is expected to grow at 2.5% a year until 2020, and could soar by 120% by 2050, compared with 2000, if nothing is done to check it.
However, there is a huge disparity between modes, with road's share of transport energy consumption growing from less than 50% in 1973 to nearly 75% in 2011. Conversely rail's share is tiny by comparison and has fallen slightly. Road was responsible for 72.3% of transport CO2 emissions in 2010 compared with 11.3% for shipping, 10.8% for air and just 3.2% for rail. We also face the prospect of a doubling of the number of cars to 2 billion globally by 2050.
Rail has been successful in cutting CO2 emissions which fell by 18% per tonne-km and by 32% per passenger-km between 2000 and 2010, although the rate of improvement has been slowing recently. Rail is also unique as it is the only mode which can be powered by any fuel provided the railway is electrified, although this advantage could be eroded if electric cars become more widely accepted. Electric trains are also more energy efficient and cheaper to run than diesels. The proportion of electrified lines has been growing but they still only account for 25% of the global rail network. On the plus side, 40% of trains are electric and 65% of passenger-km is by electric traction.
Some countries and cities already recognise the need to expand rail capacity. For example, Paris and Singapore are doubling the size of their metros, and China and Saudi Arabia are engaged in huge rail construction projects both nationally and in their main cities, but the overall picture is still heavily biased towards road. In the last decade the global road network expanded by 32%, while the global rail network contracted by 3%.
So what can be done to realise a huge shift of traffic from road to rail? The European Shift2Rail research initiative is an important step forward. Mr Josef Doppelbauer, chairman of the European Rail Research Advisory Council (Errac) and vice-president and chief technical officer with Bombardier Transportation, described Shift2Rail as a "small revolution for rail" but said the real revolution would occur when Shift2Rail's research programmes have been completed and the new technology is implemented.
Speaking during the session sponsored by the Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Managers (CER), its executive director Mr Libor Lochman set out a three-point strategy to kick start a real shift to rail. First, Lochman argues new framework conditions are needed so that rail can compete fairly with other modes - he hopes to see some progress on this in the next three years. Secondly, national governments need to substantially increase the level of investment in rail infrastructure. "If we don't have high-quality, high-capacity infrastructure we won't be able to operate more trains," he said. Thirdly, investment in technology needs to be stepped up to make railways more efficient and competitive.
Mr Antoine Kedzierski of the European Commission's DG Move transport directorate outlined the European Union's 2050 vision for rail transport white paper which sets out some tough objectives for rail. It calls for 50% of road freight moving more than 300km to transfer to rail or water, a doubling of railfreight volumes, connecting all ports to the rail network, and developing railfreight corridors. For passenger rail, the EU wants the high-speed rail network to triple in size, the bulk of medium-distance passenger transport to go by rail, and to connect all "core network airports" to the rail network.
The UIC has just published new targets which call for rail to increase its share of passenger land transport by 50% by 2030 and by 100% by 2050 compared with 1990. For freight the UIC wants railways to reach parity with road transport in tonne-km by 2030 and to be moving 50% more tonne-km than road by 2050. Whilst it is good to have targets, they need to be realistic and I doubt whether it is feasible to achieve such an enormous shift from road to rail without a massive increase in investment.
There has been a noticeable increase in the number of governments around the world which are now taking rail seriously for the first time in decades. But the rail industry needs to build on this momentum and win over many more politicians by stepping up its lobbying efforts.
The industry also needs to work more closely with politicians and planners to shorten the time it takes to obtain approval for new lines. Time is of the essence and the rail industry cannot afford to let this great opportunity slip away.