What is Forum for the Future?

We’re one of the leading sustainability charities that work in partnership with business. We see that we have to make some major shifts in the world’s systems so that they’re ready for the future – which we call ‘the Big Shift’. We’re in the early stages of this, and while it’s beneficial to have the green consumer approach and do a little bit here and a little bit there, it doesn’t get you through the big transition, so the main focus of our work is around systems thinking and systems innovation. As part of that we have two sector-based programmes, around food and energy. I’m in the energy team and lead the work we do on transport. A lot of people hear the word ‘energy’ and think of electricity, but it also covers gas and liquid fuels and in fact the whole transport system, which constitutes roughly a third of our energy use and emissions.

What are the biggest opportunities for sustainability in rail?

Rail is the only long-range mode of transport which has the potential to be entirely sustainable right now. Electric rail driven by a sustainable electricity grid is something that can work forever, even with current technology. None of the other transport systems are so advanced in that sense: we can’t go on indefinitely with our current cars and trucks because there aren’t enough fossil fuels. Bicycles we can certainly go on with but I’m not going to Birmingham on my bike. So rail in my view is effectively the backbone of a sustainable transport system. We just have to make sure we don’t think of it by itself.

But rail has to make sure that it doesn’t get complacent and that it builds on its position and becomes the truly sustainable mode of transport it has the potential to be, because it isn’t there yet, particularly in this country where we still have a large diesel sector. Some of our continental neighbours have a different state of affairs – in France they’re probably closer to true low carbon rail, with the big proviso that a lot of it is powered by nuclear power

I guess it’s more than an opportunity – it’s that we’ve got to go that way really…

Yes absolutely. However I think one of the main challenges for rail is that cars have made very great progress. There have been major falls in tailpipe emissions and we have electric technology for them.

The car industry is clearly not there yet but has moved forward in leaps and bounds, and if you look at the recent progress made in emissions and indeed energy use, it exceeds the progress made in energy terms by rail.

So rail has had a tendency to think it is the green mode, and that’s true, but it’s not there yet. It has the potential as I said.

So it can’t get complacent…

That’s right. It’s also about perceptions. Most people at the moment, probably quite correctly think rail is greener than a car, but I was conscious, and I’m probably one of the relatively few people who are, as I sat in my car on my way to the West Country with my family, that we were lower emission per person than if we’d been sitting in an HST, because a diesel HST has 70gms on average per passenger kilometre, and the three of us were sitting in a hybrid car that comes out at around 50gms or so each. If you get that shouted in a media piece for example, given the way figures are cherry picking picked that could make people think: ‘Hang on a minute maybe trains aren’t so green after all’, when in fact they are, and certainly have the potential to be. Electrify the route and keep up the grid decarbonisation and it’s a different story entirely.

What’s the biggest challenge?

The hardest thing the UK rail sector has to deal with is probably its structure, which is awfully complex. There are an enormous number of distractions in the franchising system which means that’s where everybody’s energies are focused even when it goes right, let alone on making a more sustainable railway and ensuring it’s at the heart of a sustainable transport system for the country.

There’s a lot of talk about rail integration, whether with other modes or within its own system, and we just need it to work better together, whoever owns it. But that’s going to take a long time to sort out and I don’t think we can afford to wait.

In the shorter-term, putting aside the question of structure the core need is electrification. Probably not everywhere – there are rural parts where it wouldn’t make sense. But we have to push on with keeping down industry emissions and making sure there are no adverse headlines to ensure rail retains its advantage, which it does have, against cars, or in comparison with them.

There are a good chunk of innovations underway in the industry, driver advice systems and so on, but in some ways those good initiatives have happened despite a lack of the right incentives in terms of how energy is paid for, whether it’s measured, that kind of thing. Many car drivers might be amazed to know that even having an electricity meter on the train, and charging accordingly is a very new development in the industry, and still far from universal. But this is essential if rail operators are to get returns for energy efficient operation.

A 2013 seminar hosted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers debated whether carbon matters to UK rail, which accounts for 0.0076 of the total world output of CO2. And if it meets its reduction target of 10 per cent by 2030, that would equate to just 14 minutes of China’s output.

You could say this next breath I’m going to take and the next three breaths will be a tiny proportion of breaths I take in my life so why bother? The fact is it all adds up. And what is more, as the rest of the economy de-carbonises, if one industry doesn’t change it gets bigger and bigger as a proportion of the rest. If we take aviation, if it doesn’t decarbonise and the rest of the economy does, it could in some scenarios, by 2050 make up all of our carbon emissions, absolutely all of them. And rail likewise – if it doesn’t decarbonise it would not only make up a much larger proportion it would look really silly.

So the whole economy has to decarbonise massively, and we have to completely decarbonise our electricity supply, not just by 5 or 10 per cent. The hardest area to decarbonise is heat and also aviation in my view, so those which can do so easily need to do so, and rail is THE most ‘de-carbonisable’ sector.

An article in The Rail Engineer last year quoted Iain Flynn of London Underground who talked about an ‘inconvenient truth’, that ‘no matter how much we cut the [CO2] numbers, delivering more capacity is the key priority.’ Here the real issues are modal shift and the social value that, for example, LU’s services facilitate.

The social value of rail is enormous and none of this is about slimming down rail, which has a preferably, growing role in transport. And that’s why, in some of our work with the rail industry we’ve seen organisations quite recently focusing on cutting their emissions. But the thing is, is it correct just to be cutting your emissions if, for example, that’s achieved by cutting services? If you’re growing your services and taking people out of cars then you’re delivering an overall cut, even though that doesn’t come out of your own bucket if you’re a Toc for example. So in our view when you’re a sustainable solutions provider, which rail is, then it probably makes sense to focus on relative emissions reductions, so that’s on a per passenger km basis for example.

Lorna Pelly wrote a piece on your website about the Engineers of 21st Century programme, in which the Highways Agency, Network Rail (supported by RSSB), Atkins and Balfour Beatty tasked their young engineers to develop a way of assessing and managing the whole-life carbon of an infrastructure project.

The embodied carbon in rail is something that’s been rather neglected so far so I think that’s a good question. I have seen one or two possibly slightly cherry picked numbers from the US where people were making the case that when you counted embedded carbon in, rail was higher carbon than certain other sectors – aviation for example. Those figures didn’t actually make sense when you compare them properly, but I think the point is well made that with a big chunk of concrete in particular, and plenty of other items required in building a new rail line, you do need to take account of embodied carbon. You’ve got initial construction and then subsequent maintenance, and that’s not really measured much at the moment.

I think that’s changing though and an embodied carbon tool is being developed for rail, but it’s harder to measure than emitted carbon – you’re trying to work out what’s in the infrastructure fabric and consumables and where it came from, and that requires enormous supply chain knowledge.

Network Rail has launched its Sustainable Development Strategy, and new contractor tenders need a minimum of 5 per cent allocation to sustainability. But does the company make the principles involved clear enough?

That’s a detailed issue and not an area of specialisation for us. Sustainability covers a whole bucket of issues in a wide-range of areas. I’ve talked about energy consumption and carbon emissions because that’s the elephant in the room for global sustainability. But there are all sorts of other things – noise, local area emissions, water pollution, embodied carbon, social angles like how well you treat your staff as well as the core issue of safety.

Very large companies like Balfour Beatty Rail or Costain are quite capable of managing their own sustainability as long as they choose to do so. But for Network Rail as the overall contracting party it’s their responsibility as well, so in these massive long- term contracts it’s enormously important that you have a very strong dialogue between the organisations so they have the same understanding of what’s required, and that NR is meeting overall rail industry goals such as the Sustainable Development Principles that are laid out in franchise agreements now. In fact the franchise process is a way in which sustainability can be promoted with these new requirements in the ITT’s.

Do they go far enough?

We’ll have to see how the bids come in. Probably they will be what is achievable at this point given that the ructions that have gone on with the franchise process. I think we’ll have to see how people respond to it, so the jury’s out on that one.

Are there any cultural issues blocking sustainability in the rail industry?

All business comes from a business-as-usual position where sustainability was either not there or was a bolt on. The key to moving to a sustainable business is to get your approach to it embedded in the business. It’s been a variable picture as to the progress businesses have made with that. The rail industry has further to go but the RSSB, who we work with, is very active in that through the Sustainable Rail Programme. As you know, rail is a large industry with a lot of people who have been in it for a long time. It has techniques that have been developed over 150 years it takes time to change that sort of culture. But I don’t think it’s ‘anti- sustainability’, it’s just that change like that takes time and there are so many other short-term challenges.

What are the demographic and cultural shifts that you see affecting rail?

We’ve seen a dramatic drop in the number of young people with driving licences in the US and UK, and a falling off of interest in cars as cultural icons. This is partly due to economics, things like insurance rising, the financial crisis etc. but also because everyone is much more turned on by their mobile devices – that’s what young people are into so to speak, so we’ve had a drop in car miles and indeed in fuel consumption in the western world, which has led to terms like ‘Peak car’.

The Department for Transport doesn’t necessarily think so, but I believe a shift could be taking place. And there are many other innovations – car clubs for example. So these changes, which bring together the geo-locational abilities of smartphones with car clubs, hire bikes and so on, all enable a different approach to transport to take place, certainly in urban, possibly increasingly in suburban, and maybe even rural areas.

I think we could look at a situation where you can use cars more like buses, on an occasional service rather than product basis. A car could be parked at the end of your street which you can get into using a smart card; you can go where you want and then just leave it, and if it gets run into then somebody else sorts it out. You never have to tax and insure it and you pay at the point of use. So there’s a lot of potential for that shift in the way people use cars. And who benefits? The answer is public transport. Because if people don’t use cars so often they are around 20 times more likely to use bus or rail. Indeed there are companies who are delivering that service right now – Zipcar, City Car Club: in fact Zipcar has just been bought by Avis as it can see the way the world is turning. And I believe in Western Europe there are public transport companies who have bought or started up car clubs because they know they can benefit if they promote that approach to cars.

So could rail companies here take that approach?

Absolutely. If you are a rail or bus company or you own both, then promoting car clubs is a way to help people use your own services, and that enables the overall systems approach we talked about.

Is rail too insular in its thinking then?

Rail does see itself as separate but so does bus. There’s isn’t very much cross fertilisation between bus, rail, coach etc. but we have some companies owning bus and rail groups so there’s the potential for more improvement on that.

We hear a lot about modal shift being the answer…

We do hear that in the rail industry and it is a good goal, but we have to remember that rail only carries a minority of journeys, so even if you doubled the number of passengers that rail carries, and if, and it’s a very big ‘if’, those people were taken out of cars and they weren’t new journeys, you would only reduce car transport by 10 per cent or so.

Is there anything else that rail should be doing in sustainability?

Electrification and working with other modes in a systemic way are the two important things, and in terms of the ‘Big Shift’ I mentioned, which helps the whole system, rail should try to buy more sustainable power to support shifts in the grid. That gets into the politics and the equivalent complexities of the electricity industry, which are every bit as difficult as rail.

Do you think the coalition government understands these issues for transport?

The government has far further to go across the board in the whole of sustainability. This has not been a good period of time for sustainability, which is not to say that it was brilliant under the former Labour government but it has been a harder few years. Nevertheless there are some good policies in place, particularly in supporting renewable energy generation, and that’s a real sign of what can be done. Last winter we had something like 20 per cent of power coming in from wind at one point – that’s a serious contribution.

The rail industry is quite an owner of land so it’s possible for it to generate its own power. It’s entirely conceivable – depending on how the incentives go in terms of onshore wind turbines – to put them down a track for example and we’ve already seen solar arrays along stretches of railway in Germany or over a station as at Blackfriars. But these are not Big Shift initiatives.

Last but not least, what about HS2 – if the power sector isn’t decarbonised by 2030 then the environmental argument for it could be weakened?

That’s true, but it’s a much higher energy user and one of the major things you can do to reduce energy is to go slower. But even if it’s a bit profligate on energy, if you’ve decarbonised the energy system then you’ll be ok. So with a decarbonised grid HS2 can still be low carbon, but if you fail in that you might well find you have higher emissions because HS2 will be much more energy intensive than say a 225 class 91 running up the East Coast Main Line for example.

At the risk of opening a can of worms, I think you’ll find the green sector has been fairly quiet on HS2 because it’s fairly ambivalent about it, I would say. We’ve had the discussions and I think there’s a level of agnosticism. We’re probably very thankful it’s not a new airport, but at the same time doubtful that it’s the best way of spending such a large amount of money. We absolutely need capacity increases but is a high speed train the best way when you think where else it can be spent? Of course we need it invested in the rail sector but there may be other ways of doing it. I can understand if you’re in the industry then you would understandably have an interest in the kit, boy’s toys and all that. But this is a £43+ billion project.

How would you spend the money?

Broadly I would put a large chunk into capacity increases and some of it into wider energy, whether renewables or electrification, because although there are programmes in existence, I think they can go further.

One of the ideas we need to move on from is that speed is always better. People are able to use their travelling time so much more productively now, and getting somewhere faster could even be counter-productive because you haven’t had time to prepare for a meeting. That applies widely to the travel industry, for example we are working on making bus travel fun if you have WiFi. Rail is still mostly charging for it and I would suggest it makes it free for everybody so the gap with car driving becomes even clearer.

My point is that in a sustainable economy you want to be doing more about quality and less about faster, faster, bigger, bigger.