THE COP21 Paris agreement on December 12 2015 and the commitment by 196 countries to limit global warming to “well below” 2oC, and ideally 1.5oC, is increasingly living up to its billing as a watershed moment in the fight against climate change.

The agreement is set to enter force on November 4 after ratification by the major emitters, including the United States, China, India and the European Union, over the past few weeks. It has since been followed by the recent agreement to begin to eliminate HFCs by 2024, and confirmation by rich nations that they will deliver on their $US 100bn annual commitment to support developing countries’ efforts to curb emissions by 2020.

UIC ViennaMomentum is clearly growing, and as the second largest contributor to emissions, it is only a matter of time before transport receives greater scrutiny. But where does the rail industry sit within this debate?

The industry’s approach to sustainability was under the spotlight at the UIC’s 13th Sustainability conference, held in Vienna on October 12-13.

Four years after the 12th edition held in Venice, attendance rose to 330 registered delegates from 25 countries from around 240 in 2012, which compares with around 30 at the inaugural edition in 1994. This event was attended solely by a group of environmental managers, but the growing turnout reflects the importance and influence of the sustainable movement in the rail industry, which as well as environmental, now encompasses economic and social sustainability.

While the 2012 event had a noteworthy line-up of speakers, and strong commitments to sustainability by the likes of the then president of Russian Railways (RZD), Dr Vladimir Yakunin, and CEO of Italian State Railways (FS), Mr Mauro Moretti, it lacked the ringing endorsement of the United Nations. This had changed by 2016.

“Sustainable transport is an important part of our common efforts to tackle climate change and build a cleaner, greener world,” said UN secretary general Mr Ban Ki Moon, in a statement read at the event by UIC director general Mr Jean-Pierre Loubinoux. “The transport sector can play a vital role in achieving the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals. I count on the commitment of the global railway community to make transport more sustainable - and your gathering is especially timely coming within weeks of the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.”

For Mr Nicholas Craven, UIC’s manager of sustainable development, this approval reflects the hard work by the UIC over the past few years to continually state rail’s case so it became a central part of the conversation.

With little recognition at COP15, despite the UIC running the “Train to Copenhagen” and other promotional activities, non-state actors, including the UIC, were encouraged to play a greater role at the COP events and to demonstrate how they might be able to benefit the process. The UIC stepped up to meet this challenge, ensuring that rail became part of the conversation at the Rio+20 conference in 2012, and that by the time COP21 rolled around, rail was considered as part of the solution.

This is reflected by Loubinoux’s appointment to the UN secretary general’s 16-member high-level advisory group on sustainable transport. Rail and public transport is also represented by International Association of Public Transport (UITP) secretary general Mr Alain Flausch, and former managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, Mr Elattuvalapil Sreedharan.

“From here, we can make the case for rail to be the backbone of a sustainable transport system,” Craven says.


This month’s COP22 in Marrakech will begin to set out how exactly countries will tackle the challenge of reducing their emissions. The UIC, in cooperation with Moroccan National Railways (ONCF), will again host a series of events to promote rail’s cause as a sustainable transport mode. It is also hoped that the industry will have a noticeable presence at the UN’s inaugural Global Sustainable Transport Conference in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, on November 26-27.

These events will very likely highlight the UIC’s Low Carbon Rail Transport Challenge, which calls for a 50% reduction of emissions and energy consumption by 2030 relative to a 1990 baseline, and reductions in energy consumption by 60% and emissions by 75% by 2050. The UIC is also calling for rail to increase its share of all passenger journeys by 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 compared with 2010, and it appears its members are heeding the call. Around 80 UIC member railways covering the majority of passenger-km and tonne-km of traffic operated around the world have now signed up to the UIC’s Railway Climate Responsibility pledge, which sets out actions to complement these targets, and in 2013, specific energy consumption by railways had fallen by 37% and CO2 emissions by 30% since 1990, which is in line with these targets.

The conference was inevitably an opportunity for railways to showcase how they have and will continue to meet these objectives. As host, Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) had a sizable presence with various presentations on its efforts ranging from sourcing 80% of its energy from renewables to sustainable procurement. Mr Herbert Kasser, secretary general of the Austrian Ministry of Transport, was also keen to emphasise the government’s support through Austria’s Transport Masterplan, which encourages a “shift to rail transport” through an annual €2.5bn investment in related programmes.

Similarly, German Rail’s (DB) head of environment Mr Andreas Gehlhaar reaffirmed the railway’s commitment to sustainability as outlined in its corporate strategy, and efforts to deliver this, including the expansion of its long-distance network by 25% and the use of digital technologies to improve connectivity between different modes. Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) also emphasised how it is already at the centre of an intermodal transport system in the country, and is striving to reduce its carbon footprint.

Indeed, SBB was one of the recipients of the UIC’s Sustainability Award for its sleep mode for trains, which is helping to reduce 45% of energy previously consumed during parking and dwell times and is part of eye-catching efforts to reduce the railway’s energy consumption by 20%, or 600GWh by 2025. DB also won an award for its public DB Train Simulator app, which is based on its driver advisory system and encourages users to adopt energy-efficient driving techniques while reaching the destination on time. The third award went to the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India for its initiative to create jobs for 3000 local people for the Delhi - Kolkata and Delhi - Mumbai freight corridors. In total, there were nine nominated projects from different companies, with notable other entries from Korean Railway Research Institute, Infrabel and Thalys.

Major investments

The industry is clearly doing good work, with sustainability departments, staffed by enthusiastic and committed professionals, growing in scope and influence at railways. Yet rail still faces many significant challenges if it is truly to become the backbone of sustainable transport.

Achieving the UIC’s ambitious targets will require major investments in new and revitalised infrastructure, with the $US 100bn annual commitment to developing nations realistically only a drop in the ocean to what is really required, and rail projects in a tough fight to secure these funds.

There are also implications for existing networks. While rail might be in a strong position to become the backbone of sustainable transport in Europe, China and Japan, can it realistically expect to carry twice as many passengers as it does already without significant investments in advanced technology to improve capacity? Ask anyone who uses a packed commuter or metro train on a weekday morning and the answer is clearly a big no.

Rail arguably faces a more difficult fight in markets where networks remain piecemeal compared with road. In Canada where the car is very much king - there are more than 25 million cars in a country with a population of 35 million people - the biggest challenge is to offer a viable alternative that will convince people to give up their private vehicles.

Via Rail CEO Mr Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said the solution to this is a change in management thinking and approach to decision making. He argued that this should increasingly emphasise sharing infrastructure, particularly “precious railway rights-of-way,” which serve every urban area in Canada, and move away from a “silo” approach to network management which is “greatly impeding our ability to convince people who use their cars to use the train.”

“It is easy to discuss - nobody is against a better environment; nobody is against a better climate. But it is in daily decisions that managers make that the future is either enabled or crippled,” Desjardins-Siciliano says.

“We have to put our minds to ways to work together guided by the sustainability development goals (SDGs), or our own interpretation of those SDGs, so we can make daily infrastructure operating and commercial decisions that lead to greater synergies, higher optimisation and maximisation of infrastructure for all modes of transport otherwise we will fail in reaching our ambitious targets.”

As a UIC conference, main line services and operations were inevitably more in the spotlight in Vienna. But to deliver a truly sustainable transport system, as Siciliano points out, there must be integration between all modes of public transport. Would aligning the UIC’s sustainability goals with those of the UITP offer such a united approach and stimulate greater cooperation? This could be particularly important to encourage investment in rail-based systems in North America, and in developing countries, especially given current trends to urbanisation, and as more of the 2 billion people who do not currently have access to transport come online.

After all rail is not the only mode striving to improve its green credentials. Mr Eddy Liégois, head of the Land Transport unit at DG Move, revealed that the road industry is equally engaged in developing sustainable solutions. This includes improved fuel efficiency and investments in digitalising transport - including driverless cars - with the conference hearing that research on electric vehicles at BMW has now evolved to solely focus on driverless electric cars.

This made the results of a recent SBB survey of passengers especially sobering. The study found that people did not distinguish between the environmental credentials of using an electric car over a train. It also brought the sentiments of Mr Johann Pluy, director of railway systems at ÖBB Infra, into focus: “Sustainability is not a cover up, we must create an added value for the rail system in order to sell our product and offer an attractive service,” Pluy said.

The rail industry must then do more to embrace sustainability measures that will enhance its service offerings. This includes by grabbing “low-hanging fruit” as quickly as possible so it can move on to the bigger challenges. As some delegates pointed out, many of the emissions reductions solutions highlighted at the conference have been around for years, but have not yet been widely introduced.

Enhance targets

There is also the case for the industry to enhance its sustainability targets. With the world set to come together again this month to discuss how it might implement the Paris Agreement, reducing the use of fossil fuels for energy generation is likely to be at the top of the agenda. As Mr Kamel Ben Naceur, director of the Directorate of Sustainability Technology and Outlooks at the International Energy Agency, told delegates, currently 82% of the world’s energy generation comes from fossil fuels. If there is any chance of delivering the Paris Agreement, this must fall quite rapidly.

With 36.2% of all its services now using electric traction compared with 17.2% in 1990, and continuing to increase, rail is in an advantageous position. However, by committing to sourcing more of its energy from renewables it can further position itself as the natural transport partner to governments as they strive to reduce their emissions.

Currently only 8.7% of all energy used by railways comes from renewable sources. However, with Europe already achieving the EU Climate Package target of sourcing 20% of its energy from renewables in 2011, there is now a strong case to increase this further, and to encourage the rest of the world to follow suit.

There are inevitably challenges to doing this: recording the precise source and use of energy is a complicated and not always transparent process; accessing renewable energy is also not as straightforward for some railways as it is for ÖBB and SBB which have access to their own hydro-electric plants. The cost of electricity, as Mr Boris Ivanov, deputy head of the technical policy department at RZD, told the conference, is also relatively cheap for some railways, which makes it difficult to justify spending more on acquiring clean energy.

However, work is underway to improve the situation. The UIC’s “dual-reporting approach” to reporting CO2 emissions relative to the procurement of renewable energy, which is in line with the Greenhouse Gases Protocol Scope 2 Guidance established by the World Resources Institute, is a good step towards improving transparency.

In addition, the cost of renewables is falling - by a factor of four in the last three decades according to Naceur - which will increasingly make these sources of energy competitive. And with governments set to increase their investments in this area to meet their Paris targets, rail should put itself at the front of the queue to benefit so it remains a major part of the solution. If not, with other modes of transport working hard, and spending lots of money, to position themselves as the backbone of a future sustainable transport network, rail may find itself squeezed out.