Once upon a time all the rail industry had to do to help save the planet was to get more people out of those nasty smelly cars and into nice clean trains and the problem would be solved. This may have been good thinking 10-20 years ago but is it true today?

It could be argued that modal shift has been a success. Rail travel numbers continue to rise but is it really the most sustainable option? Car use has been discouraged by a combination of legislation and financial instruments. EU legislation to clean up exhaust emissions and the end-of-life vehicle directive have combined to ensure that cars are cleaner both during their lives and at the end of their useful life. Financial instruments such as fuel duty, road tax, company car benefit in kind linked to emissions, not to mention unprecedented fuel prices, should have priced cars off the road. However, the insatiable demand for individual transport and a competitive car industry have combined to deliver technical innovation to provide cheap, reliable, efficient, clean cars. Today I can buy a premium brand car that seats four people in comfort which is capable of 120g/km or less. If I put three of my mates in it this would equate to 40g/ passenger km, approximately half that of the London Underground system. I can’t compare this with any confidence to other rail operations because I don’t believe there is reliable carbon emissions data available. The rail sector has simply had less legislative and competitor pressure to define and reduce emissions and does not even have reliable base data from which to develop a coherent plan. The franchise model is not helpful either, it does not encourage long-term investment and there is very little focus on sustainability in the bid process.

Of course carbon is not the only environmental argument for rail travel. We must consider congestion and local air quality too. The car industry will not solve all these problems but all-electric cars with zero tailpipe emissions are already on our streets and the Orwellian prospect of driverless cars is probably not far from reality. I am not an advocate for car transport. I have a car but use it very little. At least 95 per cent of my business travel is by train. I find rail travel marginally less stressful and significantly more efficient. I can work on a train to extend my working day; I can’t do that in a car (yet).

My rail industry colleagues will argue that trains are different; they last a lot longer than cars, product development cycles are a lot longer and there are fewer manufacturers in the world due to the high cost of entry. Trains are also very expensive, the capital cost is so high that the business case for a more economical option is hard to make if the initial capital outlay is higher.

Trains losing the carbon battle to cars

It seems to me that trains are losing the carbon battle to the car but an over- crowded nation such as ours needs good public transport infrastructure and we are seeing significant investment. But is this infrastructure sustainable? The news here is better but we still have a long way to go. In the past decade, the construction sector has been forced to consider its sustainability impacts. Initially this was from direct action by NGO’s, the protests at Twyford Down and the Manchester Airport runway (remember Swampy the Mole?) were the first wake-up call for major clients, the seven-year public enquiry for Heathrow Terminal 5 led to the first major infrastructure project to have a significant sustainability plan. The promise to deliver ‘the most sustainable Games ever’ for London 2012 led to a rigorous sustainability plan from the Olympic Delivery Authority and independent assurance by the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012. I had the honour to chair the Commission throughout its life from 2007-13. Construction contractors began to realise that the intelligent client of the future will require them to deliver more sustainable solutions and to be able to demonstrate their achievements with hard facts. In the rail sector, mega-projects such as Crossrail, Thameslink and Great Western Electrification are setting the bar very high and holding their supply chains to account for delivering on their promises. However, this remains patchy and there are still examples of projects setting very low ambitions and seeing sustainability as an optional extra.

Supply Chain Sustainability School

The construction sector is a difficult one to influence. It comprises a small number of major players at the top who deliver very little themselves, they attempt to control a deep and wide supply chain comprising literally hundreds of thousands of sub-contractors, consultants and suppliers. This supply chain does not have adequate capacity to deliver more sustainable solutions and we are heading to a situation where main contractors will have a very small pool of competent suppliers and a very large pool of less competent ones. This will lead to the competent few winning the work and being unable to deal with demand, and the incompetent many either surviving by delivering the many less sustainable projects or going under. Basic economic theory says if you have a small number of suppliers for a large amount of work the price will go up, perpetuating the myth that sustainability costs more. The villain here is not sustainability but bad supply chain management.

I am pleased to see the construction sector has worked this out and has set aside traditional competitive rivalry to develop the Supply Chain Sustainability School. Launched in June 2012, this was a collaborative initiative by seven major contractors which has grown to 15 by May 2014. I have the privilege of chairing the leadership group for this programme of work. It is a virtual learning environment for the supply chain with some smart software to enable companies providing 170 different categories of supply to perform a bespoke self-assessment relevant to what they do. They receive a ten point action plan selected from more than 500 carefully chosen resources based on what they do and how much they currently know. They can re-assess to get another ten actions, then another ten, then another ten etc. 5,000 companies are taking part in this initiative now; this is still scratching the surface of the industry but it is growing at a rate of 250 new members per month and new groups within the School are starting to attract new partners. I hope the likes of Network Rail, the Highways Agency and National Grid will join the infrastructure group this year and that train operating companies join the facilities management group. Collaboration is key to solving this potential market failure.

Embodied carbon is a growing issue. This is about how much carbon goes into things that are manufactured or processed. This is a complex subject that needs to be addressed by the industry in a consistent and pragmatic way. I am pleased to see that the industry, led by RSSB, has worked together to select a common platform to measure embodied carbon but we are still a long way from arriving at a consistent way to administer the data to ensure a reliable set of assumptions. Car manufacturers can measure this down to the last washer so we still have a lot of catching up to do.