Nathan Baker, Director of Engineering Knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers, makes the case for rail’s role in global development
Rail has long boasted of being a sustainable mode of transport.
It is relatively environmentally friendly, enabling mass transit of both passengers and freight while minimising congestion and emissions compared with other methods of transportation. In many parts of the world, passengers see railways as one of the quickest, easiest and cleanest ways to travel, whether it’s a daily commute, or a trip to visit family in a distant place.
Thankfully, the industry’s sustainability strategies have moved on from focusing only on environmental imperatives. Of course, the need to reduce carbon emissions and take action on climate change is still crucial. Intelligent transport projects should lead to dramatic, quantifiable environmental benefits. However, sustainability is also about building networks that are resilient for the long-term, meeting the needs of all the people who will use them without sacrificing the world around us.
New rail projects increasingly adopt a holistic approach, balancing environmental, social and economic performance. The likes of HS2 certainly address the environmental aspects of sustainability, taking into consideration resource use and waste, carbon minimisation, and the protection of the natural and historic environment.
But they also apply sustainable principles to supply chain management, local employment, and skills and training. They will directly generate thousands of jobs, seeking to provide rewarding careers that are open to all in society and generating a rich legacy of learning and expertise.
More widely, they give business to regionally-based manufacturers and other suppliers, creating a ripple effect for jobs and opportunities for local communities. By improving connectivity, these projects provide an even greater catalyst for regeneration and economic growth, both regionally and nationally, for generations to come. HS2 will serve over 25 stations, including eight of ten of Britain’s largest cities, and connect around thirty million people. The project will help bridge the North-South divide and rebalance the economy.
Serving the whole country
The development of integrated transport systems improves quality of life for individuals and communities, helping to meet both social and economic needs and reducing inequalities.
But across the UK and Europe, we still find communities that are underserved and in need of critical infrastructure. On the global scale, the challenges are even larger, with one in eight people living in extreme poverty. Quality infrastructure is one of the basic building blocks towards the achievement of social and economic goals.
Even in the UK, inadequate infrastructure provision leads to a lack of access to markets, jobs, and information and training, creating a major barrier for business and individual livelihoods. In too many regions, it has constrained productivity and economic potential.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) were created and adopted to try to address these social needs, promoting prosperity for all while also protecting the planet. Too many people assume that these goals are for less developed countries, only of relevance to non-governmental organisations and charities who work in international development. But these are goals for all countries, not just developing nations. They are relevant to industry and business. And they are relevant to the rail sector too.
The UNSDGs specifically call for the development of quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructure, including regional and transborder infrastructure, to support economic development and human well-being while providing affordable and equitable access for all.
Existing infrastructure should be upgraded, and industries retrofitted, with increased resource-use efficiency and greater adoption of clean and environmentally sound technologies and industrial processes.
It should not be a surprise to find these goals align with the sustainable development principles for rail. They are also the goals that all civil engineers should be and are working towards. The civil engineering profession is ideally placed to answer the many challenges the world faces.
That is why the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), working with the World Federation of Engineering Organisations, is bringing together the world’s civil engineering organisations for the first time in a generation. In October this year, the Global Engineering Congress will convene in London bringing together the most able engineers from over 150 countries across the world to determine how the global engineering profession can make the delivery of the UNSDGs a reality.
The global engineering profession will unite in an ambitious, combined and coordinated effort to tackle the five Sustainable Development Goals where we, engineers, can make the most impact: clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; industry, innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; and climate action.
The Congress will hear from senior experts from around the world, including Cris Liban, Executive Officer, Environmental Compliance and Sustainability, LA Metro; and Michèle Blom, Director General, Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, The Netherlands.
The extensive programme of roundtable discussions and workshops will tackle topics such as promoting the use of intelligent technology in transportation engineering, and energy retrofitting in transport, and strategic approaches to improving diversity.
As the world’s oldest professional engineering body, the ICE has a duty to both lead, and to facilitate, this global debate. There is already much detailed and informed research setting out the nature of the problem. Over the next two years, the ICE wants to build a practical plan that allows the global engineering profession collectively to turn those words into action.
The Congress will focus on how engineers can improve the lives of the billions of people around the world who still face a myriad of challenges, including lack of basic infrastructure and the ensuing poor health, education and employment outcomes as a result.
Rail’s role in global development
The rail sector should recognise the role it can and does play. Rail has a long history of delivering prosperity, forming the backbone for the Industrial Revolution and forever changing the lives of millions of people.
The UK can take pride that we created the world’s first inter-city passenger railway and the world’s first underground railway. ICE celebrates a rare milestone this year – a bicentenary – and we can look back on those impressive past achievements, boasting that civil engineers have helped pave the way to the modern world.
For centuries, civil engineers have been at the heart of social and economic progress, always tackling the problems of their era with tenacity and imagination. And they continue to do so today.
With a changing climate that brings more extreme weather events and a global population that continues to grow exponentially, it has never been more important to have passionate and creative civil engineers seeking practical solutions for societal issues.
In the 21st Century, billions of people around the world are demanding better and they deserve to have their needs met. We must, where we can, develop solutions for the dual challenges of rising populations and climate change. And these solutions need to be sustainable so as to safeguard the future and make sure we are passing something valuable onto future generations.
Unprecedented challenges require unprecedented action and we should not shy away from the ambition to change the world for the better.
Again, these discussions are not only important for less developed countries; they are relevant for all. We must recognise the realities of an increasingly interconnected world and understand the UK within a global context. Ultimately, sustainability is a world issue and the solutions must be global too. Every civil engineering discipline has its part to play and every single professional has the potential to contribute.
The UK rail sector has already made significant progress in sustainability, adopting sustainable principles for new projects and continuing to cut carbon emissions and deliver social benefits. Rail professionals should be striving to share best practice with each other and with their counterparts around the world.
Equally, there is much that can be learned from other countries. UK rail cannot afford to stand still and become complacent. The industry should seek to be ambitious and think big in terms of its potential achievements. Far from leaving it to our Victorian predecessors, we should continue to push the boundaries for how rail can promote sustainable economic growth and improve people’s lives.
For more information: https://www.ice.org.uk/events/global-engineering-congress
Nathan Baker, Director of Engineering Knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers