Last year's Train to Copenhagen initiative, in the run-up to the COP15 United Nations Climate Change Conference in the Danish capital, successfully demonstrated how seriously railways regard their commitment to reducing global warming and showed the world what is already being achieved.
There are many benefits from becoming more environmentally sustainable. For one thing it can reduce costs by expedients such as introducing economic driving techniques, shutting down diesel engines between trips, or recovering and recycling track materials. It also makes good commercial sense.
Even though railways are the most environmentally-friendly form of motorised transport, other modes are pushing hard to clean up their operations, so rail cannot afford to rest on its green laurels. Customers are also starting to make choices based on a company's environmental sustainability policies.
Transport is the bad boy at the moment. It accounts for around a quarter of global CO2 emissions, and this is set to increase by 57% between 2005 and 2030 if nothing is done to curb it. This is in stark contrast with other sectors of economic activity, some of which are starting to show reductions in CO2 emissions.
According to Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College in London in a paper presented to Britain's Railway Study Association, typical energy use per kWh per 100 passenger-km for full vehicles range from 68 for a car to 32 for a bus, while the figures for rail are tiny in comparison ranging from 6 for a diesel inter-city train to 3 for an electric inter-city train, 4.4 for a metro train, and just 1.6 for a commuter train.
Even allowing for losses in electricity generation and transmission, an electric train still uses less energy than an equivalent diesel. One might argue that the difference between electric and diesel traction is not that great, so why go to the expense of electrifying non-electrified lines? There are several reasons:
• electric trains cost less to operate and maintain than diesel
• electric trains have better performance
• the use of diesel could become unacceptable due to the particulates and sulphur it emits
• the price of diesel is likely to increase sharply in the future, and
• unlike any other mode of transport or vehicle, electric trains do not rely on a single fuel source, as electricity can be generated in a multiplicity of ways.
According to Smith, rail services in Britain produce just 2% of CO2 emissions but have a 7% market share in terms of passenger-km. As rail is so much more environmentally friendly than road or air transport, by far the greatest contribution it can make to reducing transport CO2 emissions is simply to carry more passengers and freight.
The first priority must be to do more with what we have. Most passenger modes suffer from poor average load factors, and rail is no exception. Smith says the average load factor in Britain is 38%, so clearly there is room for improvement.
Railways need to be more aggressive in marketing their services. They also need to ensure that services meet the needs of today's customers, that they are well coordinated, reliable, and commercially competitive.
There is also a lot railways can do to make better use of track capacity through better timetabling, harmonising train speeds by grouping trains of the same type, and reducing headways. One of the benefits of building high-speed lines was the elimination of inter-city passenger trains on conventional lines. But where is the extra freight and regional passenger traffic to fill the space created?
Where it is desirable to build new lines, then we need to find ways to accelerate the planning process. Mr Lennart Westberg, project director of Sweden's new Bothnia Line, has some pertinent observations about how to plan and construct new railways more quickly and efficiently and is keen to pass his experience on to others. He says he found it very difficult to find such information at the start of the project.
Rail has so much going in its favour at the moment, with its excellent green credentials, increasing backing from politicians and investors, and its new-found confidence, but it is up to the rail industry to seize this opportunity.