Eli Rees-King, Director of marketing communications business at ERK Connected, offers her thoughts on recent developments in the rail sector concerning decarbonisation and environmental sustainability and the steps being taken to meet targets.

Protecting the environment and developing sustainable solutions has never been more crucial than now, and like so many others in the sector, I am determined to play my part in doing what I can to support and help facilitate this important change.

It is encouraging to see that decarbonisation and environmental sustainability continues to be a priority for the rail industry despite the disruption over the last few months caused by the global pandemic; not to mention its impact on supply chains. At this time where positive news can sometimes feel like a rarity, a bright beacon of light shining straight from the heart of the rail industry demonstrates a seismic shift taking place to not only commit, but to truly demonstrate leadership in making this happen.

Commitment from the top

There have been some big industry announcements around decarbonisation and environmental sustainability in recent weeks. First there was Network Rail’s Environmental Strategy; a strategy that looks to place Network Rail as a global leader and paves the way for others to follow. It is widely seen as its most ambitious and forward-looking strategy to date to positioning rail as the cleanest, greenest form of mass transport.

Prior to this document, the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy (Interim Programme Business Case) was also published by Network Rail as means to support decisions on what needs to be achieved and by when, and includes considerations of where overhead electrification, battery or hydrogen trains might be most effectively deployed. Around the same time in July of this year, a further industry document – the ‘Final Rail Decarbonisation Report’ was submitted to the Government by the Decarbonisation Task Force.

An Environmental Pledge – ‘to be part of the DNA’

Network Rail’s Environmental Strategy sets out to focus on four priorities: a low-emission railway; a reliable railway that is resilient to climate change; improved biodiversity of plants and wildlife; and minimising waste and the use of materials.

Apart from its significance as ‘game changing and world-leading’, one statement from Network Rail’s Chief Executive Andrew Haines, struck me most above all others and reads with bold conviction: ‘This strategy is not an addition to the goals we have set for the organisation. Nor is it just a piece of dutiful good housekeeping. To me it is central to the way we work. Delivery will be led by our routes and regions, but thinking, planning and operating in an environmentally sustainable way must become part of the DNA of Network Rail as a whole. Acting sustainably should not be a bolt-on but part of what putting passengers first is all about.’

For what might have been once viewed or accepted as a tick box exercise, sustainability and environmental compliance should be fundamentally integral to the ethos and delivery of all rail business. Amen to that!

2018 to 2020 – significant steps

Back in October 2018, more than 150 delegates (including myself) attended RSSB’s Intelligent Power Networks to Decarbonise Rail conference. This was in response to a challenge put to industry by the UK Minister for Rail – ‘to remove all diesel only trains off the track by 2040’ and ‘produce a vision for how the rail industry will decarbonise’ – a catalyst that led to the establishment of the Decarbonisation Task Force with a primary purpose to identify the solutions needed in place to meet this target. Under the Chair of Malcolm Brown, the then CEO of Angel Trains, the Task Force was made up of industry representatives from AMP Capital, Rail Freight Group Network Rail, Rail Delivery Group, RDG Freight Group and Railway Industry Association.

Having established the challenge, the Task Force set out its vision: ‘To move UK rail to the lowest practicable carbon energy base by 2040, enabling the industry to be world leaders in developing and delivering low carbon transport solutions for rail.’ Three pivotal areas were highlighted to address the decarbonisation challenge; traction, property and infrastructure.

With over 14,000 passenger vehicles and around 850 freight locomotives available for service, the Task Force recognised this to be by far the largest part of rails footprint and therefore had to be the primary focus of the decarbonisation report. Although, interestingly, Rail is already a naturally low-carbon transport mode and despite making up around ten per cent of all distance travelled across the UK, Rail is responsible for less than 2.5 per cent of total transport emissions and about 0.6 per cent of the UK’s total emissions.

With over 3,000 carriages or vehicles used in diesel passenger trains needing to be replaced or converted in the years ahead (many of which are approaching their end of life) this means that electrification of key routes is likely to be the most cost-effective option for some of these vehicles, particularly for the higher speed intercity trains. However, depending on the extent of electrification, as many as 2,400 vehicles could use alternative low-carbon traction options such as hydrogen and battery technology.

It is of note that several of the rail operators have actively taken steps to making significant changes over the last few years to integrate alternative traction power solutions into their fleets.

As the first UK operator to make the move to bi-mode, Great Western Railway (GWR) introduced the Hitachi Class 800 onto its line in October 2017, which was followed by LNER (who launched the Azuma bi-mode train Class 800 in May 2019. It was a privilege to be able to sit in the driver’s seat of the very impressive cab of the Azuma when it came to Rail Live a few weeks later and to also speak to the driver about all the advantages the Azuma had to offer.

Now although bi-modes might not hold the key to decarbonisation, it showed an important first step that has since laid the path for hybrid trains to gain traction with the inclusion of hydrogen and battery technology. It was during my time with Rail Alliance that I was able to witness first-hand the exciting innovation being developed by Porterbrook and BCRRE in the creation of the UK’s first hydrogen train; HydroFLEX in addition to the UK’s first battery powered train by Vivarail. Had the big rail events taken place this year, we might have even had the opportunity to see Alstom and Eversholt Rail’s combined efforts in showcasing ‘Breeze’ which has involved the conversion of more than one hundred diesel trains to hydrogen fuelled engines.

However, it is still a widely accepted fact that electrification should remain a priority in terms of options for intensively used routes, with alternative low-carbon traction options – such as hydrogen and battery technology – used for lines where there would not be a business case for electrification.

In addition to the Environmental Strategy, the interim document – Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy also published by Network Rail (to be completed and approved by the end of this year) along with a further commitment to meet science-based targets for emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, states that it intends to trial bi-mode, hydrogen and battery trains by 2024, and to have reduced pollutants in its stations by 25 per cent by 2030. The target for the completion of the roll out of electric vehicle charging at its operated sites and managed stations is set at 2029. The target is for one hundred per cent of non-traction electricity to come from renewable sources by the end of 2020, and all energy by 2030.

Traction of course is just one part of the railway story – infrastructure equally has an essential role to play in delivering on zero carbon and environmental targets, and with over 15,000 route kilometres on the GB network there is plenty of work to do to cover track, points, signalling, power supplies, control systems, telecommunications, maintenance and renewal capability, and associated road fleets. Infrastructure by its very nature is interlinked with traction types, the operation and management of trains on the network, and the maintenance and renewal of the network.

With the devastating derailment near Stonehaven earlier this year, having highlighted the impact of severe weather on infrastructure, Network Rail confirmed that the environmental strategy includes ‘important commitments around how we will protect the railway from the effects of climate change, improve biodiversity on our land and minimise waste’. I am excited to see how solutions developed by green technology companies such as Triton Norway with its first-of-a-kind innovation to control water in earthworks and subterranean structures can make a significant difference to solving challenges around climate change.

Buildings and stations also have to be part of the bigger picture in incorporating green best practice methodologies to include everything from air quality, energy consumption and conservation, to material types, as well as construction techniques. There are 2,500 stations and over 500 depots on the network, as well as various office buildings and commercial properties.

We cannot fail to mention the need to focus more on promoting biodiversity and the steps being made to move towards embracing the benefits of circular economy. By the end of 2021, Network Rail will publish a national biodiversity standard covering best practice for habitat management interventions and will use the outputs to inform guidance to Network Rail asset managers on optimal habitat management interventions for biodiversity and train performance. Further to this, in 2021 and by 2029 it intends to reuse, recycle, or redeploy all harmless infrastructure materials, having mapped and prioritised materials and waste streams within its supply chain by 2021. It is planned that ‘circular economy policy’ for reducing resources and waste will be firmly in place by 2022, and material reuse and redistribution systems will form part of the procurement process by 2024.


There is clearly still much to do but the actions being taken speak volumes, demonstrating that there is significant will and commitment in place to meet net zero carbon targets across the economy; however, that said, it only be achieved through a unified effort as part of a UK collective strategy. This is a real opportunity for the supply chain to demonstrate skills, innovation and leadership in the knowledge that there is full commitment from the top backed by investment and a clear roadmap to achieve targets.

The question is now – where is the support for supply chain in helping companies to develop innovation involving solutions that resolve decarbonisation and environmental challenges in addition to the internal adjustments that can be made to business operations? I would suggest the first port of call would be to go through the Trade Associations (Railway Industry Association, BCRRE Rail Alliance and Rail Forum Midlands). I would also recommend subscribing to KTN’s rail lead, Daisy Chapman Chamberlain’s newsletter which contains all kinds of useful information including innovation and funding stream support and knowledge transfer opportunities https://ktn-uk.org/people/daisy-chapman-chamberlain/ KTN has recently launched a new website and brand as part of a new strategy to focus not only on economic prosperity but also on societal and environmental benefits, starting with the goal to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. For those businesses based in the West Midlands – another excellent resource can be found at www.sustainabilitywestmidlands.org.uk

Eli Rees King runs marketing consultancy, ERK Connected and offers b2b marketing communication services for organisations with a clear commitment to decarbonisation and environmental sustainability (www.erkconnected.co.uk).