Noah’s Train is the initiative of RailFreight Forward comprising 18 European rail freight operators committed to raising rail’s share of European freight from 18% to 30% by 2030. The container train set off from the Polish city of Katowice, which hosted the COP24 climate-change conference, in December 2018 to travel across Europe. Since then it has visited 12 cities in 10 countries. In each city local street artists decorated two containers to form the world’s longest artwork. Noah’s Train arrived at its final European destination in Rotterdam in October. Some of the containers will now be shipped to Chile to arrive in time for COP25.

RailFreight Forward says rail freight is the only way to combine economic growth with climate goals and points out that rail consumes six times less energy than road, is nine times better in terms of CO₂ emissions, eight times better regarding air pollution, and has 12 times lower external costs to society than road. But as the Community of European Railways (CER) points out, to achieve the modal shift by 2030, “we need to modernise our products, make driving a train as easy as driving a truck, and create a level playing field.”

As we report this month, the German government has agreed a series of measures to encourage greater use of rail, including increased investment, a reduction in VAT on long-distance train fares, a carbon tax and an increase in aviation taxes. While critics say the measures don’t go far enough, it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Despite rail’s green credentials, there are a lot of initiatives underway to ensure it maintains the lead over other modes. For example, all electric trains operated by Netherlands Railways (NS) have run on sustainably-generated energy since 2017. Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) followed suit in July 2018, and in January, Amsterdam Municipal Transport (GVB) was able to run all of its trams, metro trains, and electric buses on renewable energy. This year, Melbourne’s tram network, the largest in the world, will be powered entirely by solar energy.

Both French National Railways (SNCF) and Italian State Railways (FS) have successfully launched Green Bonds to fund investments. In the case of FS, the money was used to procure trains which are almost 100% recyclable.

SNCF announced plans in June to eliminate greenhouse gasses and particulate emissions by 2035 by which time diesel traction will be eliminated through limited electrification and the introduction of battery, hydrogen and hybrid trains. SNCF aims to make large stations, depots and buildings energy self-sufficient by installing solar panels on roofs. It also wants to produce zero waste by 2035.

Railsponsible was set up in 2015 by three European railway companies and three suppliers to improve sustainability throughout the supply chain. The membership has since doubled to seven railway companies and five suppliers. According to Railsponsible’s 2018-19 annual report, there was a total spend of €48bn by its members, 44% of member procurement spend was covered by corporate social responsibility assessments, and 1042 suppliers took part in Railsponsible’s assessment programme. The organisation also changed its governance rules to make it easier to attract new members.

There is little doubt that the campaign by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg and other teenagers is causing people to think about what they can do to reduce CO₂ emissions and pollution. The steady revival of night trains in Europe, spearheaded by ÖBB, is most timely, but other European operators need to follow suit if rail is to make an impact on air travel over longer distances that cannot be covered competitively by a high-speed train. For example, the decision to withdraw overnight trains from Paris to Barcelona and Madrid when a direct TGV service was introduced between Paris and Barcelona with a connection to Madrid now looks rather short sighted. It takes around 6h 30min by TGV day train to travel from Paris to Barcelona and about 10 hours to reach Madrid. Such journey times are not going to tempt many people to forsake air for rail, whereas comfortable, competitively-priced overnight services might.

A year ago Europe’s leading railway associations pledged to keep rail at the heart of national and European Union policies for decarbonisation and clean transport for the future. The International Union of Railways (UIC) has also been a staunch campaigner on behalf of rail at the United Nations and the series of COP climate change conferences.

Rail needs to keep pushing to achieve greater recognition for what it can do in the battle to prevent a climate catastrophe and to encourage governments to adopt rail-friendly policies. For example, why do some European countries levy VAT on train fares when others do not? Why not switch the tax burden to air travel instead to dissuade more people from flying?

There is clearly momentum to achieve a major shift to rail, the question is whether the railways will be able to adapt quickly enough to cope with a large surge in traffic.