Dyan Crowther, HS1 Ltd Chief Executive looks at the dual goals of decarbonising transport and achieving modal shift

Like other leaders in transport, I am acutely aware of the responsibility that the sector has in reducing its impact on the environment. In 2019, transport alone produced 27 per cent of the UK’s total CO2 emissions (CO2e) – a staggering proportion. And while exploring ways to decrease these emissions has been on the global agenda for some time now, the sector needs to accept that progress has been slow and disjointed.

What makes this disjointed approach even more frustrating is the fact that many of the solutions to decarbonising transport exist already – one of those being high-speed rail. Strikingly, in 2019, rail emitted just 1.4 per cent of the transport network’s emissions. That’s a remarkably small proportion.

And yet, high-speed rail’s environmental credentials and their economic benefits are under-recognised and under-utilised.

That’s why I made it my goal as HS1 Ltd’s Chief Executive to spark a shift to high-speed rail, while also putting a strategy in place that will see HS1 become a truly sustainable piece of transport infrastructure by 2030.

The 109-kilometre HS1 line is the only high-speed line in the UK, connecting London to Kent and the international high-speed routes to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. It is a significant part of the UK’s transport infrastructure and has an important role to play in delivering a green transport revolution.

The beginnings
When we embarked on our journey to become a more sustainable company in 2019, we quickly realised we needed to understand what environmental benefits we were already contributing. This would help us work out what we needed to do better in, and in turn where we needed to get to in terms of sustainability. All of that would help us put a plan in place to deliver on our sustainability ambitions.

The independent report that we commissioned was revealing. It showed that HS1 delivered in three clear areas – for our economy, for our society, and for our environment. For the economy, the HS1 route produces a staggering £427 million of economic benefits every year. Cumulatively since opening, that amounts to £4.5 billion.

For wider society and the communities we serve, HS1 has brought affordable housing within the reach of tens of thousands of young couples and families. Indeed, it has made the aspiration of owning a home a reality for many.

And for our environment, the shorter journey times permitted by HS1 have made international rail journeys even more attractive. Th is has driven a switch from one of the most environmentally harmful forms of transport – aeroplanes – to one of the most environmentally friendly. A passenger travelling by Eurostar to Paris, for example, generates carbon emissions that are up to 93 per cent lower than if they had flown to the same destination. We have reduced CO2e by the equivalent of 60,000 short-haul flights every year, equivalent to 750,000 tonnes of CO2e per year. We also remove 6,000 cars and lorries from UK roads each year.

These insights helped form our first Sustainability Strategy in 2020. Our mission was simple – to help consumers reduce their carbon footprint while still enjoying safe, fast and reliable travel at home and abroad. We set audacious goals across priority areas, including climate change, energy use, resource use & waste impacts, social value, biodiversity and transparency. As part of this, we have committed to being net zero-carbon impact by 2030, recycling 90 per cent of operations and project waste this year, and delivering a ‘Biodiversity Net Gain’ by 2030.

Whilst we know that train travel already generates 80 to 90 per cent less carbon than other forms of travel such as flying, we want to keep pushing further.

Making modal shift a reality
For all these commitments though, we know that to really tackle climate change and decarbonise transport, we need to get more people off planes, out of cars, and onto the railways.

A core part of our strategy therefore focuses on encouraging a modal shift to high-speed rail. And we have the capability to deliver this right now. The infrastructure is all there, but we are currently only operating at 50 per cent capacity. In passenger terms, if the HS1 line was at full capacity, an additional 4.9 million people could travel by high-speed rail each year to existing international destinations.

Such a change would represent a huge reduction in carbon emissions for short-haul European journeys and shows how passengers moving to cleaner forms of transport can have a real impact. If we can get an additional 4.9 million people to use the line every year, 450,000 more tonnes of CO2e can be prevented from entering the atmosphere. It also presents the opportunity to significantly contribute to the goals of making travel across the UK and into Europe net carbon zero before the Government’s 2050 deadline.

A collaborative approach
From conversations with our customers, it quickly became clear that achieving greater modal shift would require a collaborative approach. Encouraging more people and businesses to choose high-speed rail ultimately means we need to build a more enticing offer on top of an already excellent passenger experience. This is particularly true when you look at how you get to and from railway stations. We are aware that travelling by train with lots of suitcases and young children can be more demanding than the convenience of a car, for instance.

We knew that success, therefore, would come from sparking conversations with a different audience beyond the rail industry to seek solutions to this challenge. As a result, we turned our focus to the global stage at COP26. There, we convened a much-needed workshop for businesses, investors, policymakers and activists at the World Climate Summit’s ‘The Investment COP’.

Just as we’d hoped, the discussions were spirited and entrepreneurial. Ideas ranging from luggage concierge services to green travel-based loyalty schemes and introducing government subsidies when a business chooses a greener way to transport goods were all raised.

It felt like the start of some substantial and creative solutions to modal shift – and I was determined that this momentum would not go to waste.

That’s why last month we also hosted the inaugural Kent Rail ‘COP’ to address this same challenge at a regional level. Politicians, business leaders and green groups from the Kent region joined us in Ashford to identify how we can remove an additional two million car trips from the region’s roads. This would not only result in better air quality, but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to at least 18,500 tonnes of C02e from 2025 to 2035.

The event, which raised ideas such as partnering with local universities to offer students flexi-tickets, truly cemented my belief that the rail industry, wider business and communities along the HS1 line are all pulling in the same direction. With greater investment and collaboration, the future of high-speed is on the right track.

What’s next
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2021 report – which warned of a ‘code red for humanity’ – means there has never been a greater need to focus on the actions transport operators are taking and can take to help the UK reach its net zero goal by 2050 or before.

There is much still to do, but I’m immensely proud of the sustainability journey that HS1 is on and the bold thinking we’re already fostering. From collaboration opportunities to delivering modal shift to the hard work being put into our six priority areas, this is an exciting moment.

We are galvanised to deliver a truly sustainable piece of infrastructure and offer people throughout the UK and Europe a way to travel that is both green and convenient.

Dyan Crowther is Chief Executive of HS1 Ltd