Around 250 delegates attended the conference from various railways and bodies from all over the world, which when compared with just 24 attendees at the first conference in Paris in 1992, reflects the growing importance of sustainability and sustainable practices to the industry.

Mr Joachim Kettner, head of environmental affairs at German Rail's (DB) Environment Centre, and outgoing chairman of the UIC Environment Centre, has been at the centre of the conference, and the sustainability movement, since the beginning. He told me that there is a noticeable change since the early days.

"Twenty years ago we were seen as idealists and crazy green guys with an idealistic approach to what we would like to do," Kettner says. "Now we are an integral part of the business community and a prominent feature of the railway industry. This has been a massive step. And the fact that we are able to talk about sustainability at all is because it has become such a big part of the human consciousness."

The UIC has set various targets to achieve greater sustainability across its members' networks, the most obvious being its pledge to reduce railway emissions by 30% compared with 1990 levels by 2020 and 50% by 2050. Already emissions have been reduced by 20% on passenger services and 38% on freight, while there is noticeable progress in adopting sustainable practices. As one delegate put it "five years ago we were only talking about these things. Now we are seeing them being implemented."

Some of the best examples are highlighted in the UIC's sustainability awards. This year's recipient of sustainable land use award was Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) for its interactive mapping tool that will aid planning of future infrastructure by only causing minimal impact to the environment as well as promoting improved biodiversity. Trenitalia won the sustainable mobility award for its three-project initiative to attract new customers and promote more sustainable door-to-door journeys. This included combined rail ticket and electric vehicle rentals, discounts for taking foldable bicycles on trains, and a train and car share initiative. The Erex sustainable railway energy system, which helps infrastructure managers and operators reduce energy consumption, and was developed by Eress, which is jointly owned by Banedanmark, Infrabel, Jernbaneverket and Trafikverket, won the Energy and CO₂ category. Indian Railways' installation of 1.41 million new low-energy light bulbs in residential areas received the jury's special prize.

Previous winners of the award include Norwegian passenger operator NSB which developed a tool to measure energy consumption across its rolling stock fleet, and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) which adopted sustainability as the core element of its company strategy. Kettner also described a programme currently under development by DB to adopt a mobile energy storage system that will enable electric locomotives and emus to operate on short sections of non-electrified lines.

"At the moment around 90% of our performance is through electric traction, however, only 15% of the network is actually electrified," Kettner says. "Increasing the volume of traffic is not currently possible on the electrified network so if we can find a way to use electric trains on non-electrified lines we can do this without increasing emissions. We have finalised the proposal and are currently negotiating with the government to get financial support."

Despite these successes, sustainable projects and practices face a significant challenge in securing the funding to proceed, particularly in instances where the improvements do not provide an immediate economic benefit.

Mr Libor Lochman, executive director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER), told the conference that the EuropeTrain Project successfully concluded last month and that an official announcement of its findings is expected in December. The project consists of testing LL brake pads which are designed to reduce noise compared with conventional KK blocks and were installed on approximately 30 wagons on a freight train that has travelled 300,000km across Europe since December 2010.

With certification set to take place in 2013, and installation anticipated to start in early 2014, Lochman says that a road map is in place to implement the project. However, with an estimated pricetag of €350-400m, and funding not yet secured, he admits that there is still has a way to go before the retrofit programme and the benefits of LL brakes will be completely realised.

In contrast, Unife's Shift 2 Rail project, which is a joint technology initiative (JTI) between Europe's leading rail manufacturers to develop sustainable technologies, has secured funding of €165m from the European Commission. However, this is a fraction of the €800m in funds secured by the aviation industry's comparable Clean Skies JTI initiative, and the up to €470m secured by the HyWays JTI to develop hydrogen and fuel cell technology for road vehicles.

Rail is also set to fight its modal competitors for $US 175bn in soft loans from a conglomerate of 10 development banks for sustainable transport projects over the next 10 years. The funding announcement was made at June's Rio+ 20 summit with the World Bank set to lead these efforts by providing $US 5bn per year. But with rail only receiving 20-25% of the World Bank's available funding for sustainable transport projects in the past few years, it is set to be another tough fight.

The UIC is inevitably at the heart of this battle by offering both the platform in which sustainable ideas and best practices can be shared and acting as the collective voice for the industry's top figureheads.

The emergence of Russian Railways president Mr Vladimir Yakunin as a true champion of sustainability in Venice might then be a watershed moment for this segment of the industry. It might also indicate his vision for the future direction and work of the UIC. Yakunin is set to take over chairmanship in 2013, and his keynote address, which was widely praised by delegates, placed economic, social and environmental sustainability at the centre of what he described a "railway renaissance" currently taking place across the world.

Yakunin said that he believes that the environment is a key pillar in the future sustainable development of railways. He described work currently taking place in Russia to reduce greenhouse emissions by 35% by 2015 and 70% by 2030, and the fact that Russia has spent Roubles 3.9bn ($US 124.2m) on its environmental protection plan since 2003. He also cited the importance of innovation to realising these sustainable dreams.

"Innovation is the basis to increasing the efficiency of railway operations and to promoting greater competition in the market," Yakunin said.

Kettner praised Yakunin's sustainable vision and apparent willingness to lead from the front. He says that without support from the very top for sustainable programmes, the enthusiasm and the belief of the people working on projects at the ground level, as was clearly on show in Venice, will not be realised.

"Sustainability is not only a question of business interests and competition," Kettner says. "It is also a question for government. If we can balance that by enabling government to provide incentives that support sustainable practices, which will then spur businesses to innovate and provide new solutions we will be in a win-win situation."

Convincing governments to part with funding is of course a lot easier said than done. It often takes the persistence of a number of prominent and vocal top-level individuals to convince those holding the purse strings of the merits of a particular cause. Colleagues who attended the UIC's Global Railfreight Conference in Tangier earlier this month commented that at that particular event a visionary and uniting figurehead was absent, which if the situation does not change, could in the long-term be of great detriment to the railfreight industry.

The stage is set then for Yakunin to make a big impact as chairman of the UIC. Indeed it would be very surprising that in his new role he does not adapt his argument that rail is the means to bring Russia closer to the economies of the west, to make a similar case in a global context. And in the competitive, dog-eat-dog fight that continues with road and aviation to secure funding for certain projects, influential and visionary leadership might be exactly what rail needs.