Three obligations for sustainable rail

Three obligations for sustainable rail

Andrew Allen, Policy Analyst for Campaign for Better Transport, explains the environmental, community and local economic obligations rail has to consider

To many rail users, ‘franchising’ is a dirty word, synonymous with poor service and accusations of profits taking precedence over passengers. Whisper it, but in some important senses, franchising is being used to make the railways greener, more accessible and better for local economies.
The railway’s strength is not just in moving people. As well as good mobility, well-run rail operations improve air quality and help cut carbon emissions by getting cars off the road. They support local economies by bringing people into town centres and creating jobs both directly and indirectly. They can provide a hub for the community through smart use of building and land, and a lot more besides.

These are much more than ‘nice to haves’ to be tagged onto a cost-benefit analysis after things like ticket revenues have been estimated. Indeed, they show precisely why investing in the rail network is worth doing in the first place. As well as moving huge numbers of people and millions of tonnes of freight, rail is a central part of the kind of accessible, low-carbon, high-benefit transport network the country needs.


How much does sustainability really matter? Of course, rail franchising was originally conceived as a way of cutting public subsidy for rail, not to deliver social or environmental benefits. Franchising has had a long evolution and its response to sustainable development is an iterative one. Over the years, several transport White Papers have emphasised the importance of passenger satisfaction, but it was not until 2005 that rail’s ability to support economic growth, reduce carbon emissions and help tackle road congestion were formally recognised as policy objectives.
Over the subsequent decade, a series of reports (Eddington, McNulty, Laidlaw and Brown) responded to external challenges and highlighted ways to improve the performance of the railways. The link with productivity, reducing carbon emissions, exploiting technologies like hydrogen trains, fostering more door-to-door journeys, improving air quality and carrying out noise mapping have all gradually come to the fore.

By 2016, the then Rail Minister, Claire Perry, was defining a sustainable railway as: ‘A railway that is fit for the future, one that helps solve the environmental challenges we face, rather than contributing to them. It’s a railway that is properly connected to the communities it serves, and it’s a railway that has invested in the workforce it needs for the decades ahead.’
Franchise competitions are still judged primarily on timetabling, fleet and performance – not on maximising contribution to wider public policy objectives. But with up to a third of the marks in franchising bid scoring now going to so-called ‘quality’ factors, having good sustainability programmes in place can make the difference between winning and losing.

In practice

Research carried earlier this year by Campaign for Better Transport for the Department for Transport assessed how rail franchising currently interprets sustainable development and how this might be improved in the future. We looked at what the Government seeks to buy through the franchising system, how recent franchising documents consider social, economic and environmental benefits, how these are reflected in subsequent franchise agreements, and how franchising can be employed to improve social, economic and environmental benefits in the future.

Sustainable development-related obligations in franchising agreements take a number of forms:

  • Principles that govern decision making, such as Northern Rail’s commitment that all renewal, enhancement and building works at stations are to be implemented in accordance with the
  • Design Council’s Principles of Inclusive Design
  • Internal processes such as Greater Anglia’s undertaking to complete a review of its Customer and Stakeholder Engagement Strategy during the fourth and seventh years of the franchisee
  • Numerical targets, such as Scotrail’s requirement to offer at least two six-month placements per franchisee year to graduate interns
  • External processes such as commitments to participate in Community Rail Partnership
  • Funding, such as Scotrail’s requirement to establish a transport integration fund.

There are undoubtedly some success stories. The Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP) cites numerous initiatives where rail is seeking to harness more of its potential. Projects with ex-offenders, imaginative use of redundant buildings and local procurement are all happening.

On environmental themes, good progress has been made in cutting carbon, waste and water use through widespread adoption of ISO and other standards. Hopefully, the Government’s ongoing review of Community Rail will develop this further. Similarly, the Rail Standards and Safety Board’s (RSSB) sustainability principles are widely recognised and supported by an active programme of research and development.

As these initiatives suggest, intentions are often good but making them stick can be much harder. Franchising is not a natural fit for community engagement. At seven to ten years, franchises are relatively short term, but good community engagement needs to be built up and maintained over the long term. It can also be difficult to maintain good oversight of franchise progress. Community engagement should be more than supporting local volunteers to improve the appearance of stations.

Deeper two-way engagement is needed that goes beyond ‘box ticking’ initiatives to score a few points in bid assessments and gives people a real say in how the railways are run. For bid teams and Whitehall officials, franchises are often distant from the communities they aim to serve. Those rail operations which are managed locally (Merseyrail, Transport for London, Scotrail and in Wales) are arguably more familiar and responsive to local circumstances.

Support for local economies is even harder to pin down. Franchise holders’ obligations are less numerous and weakly developed compared with other elements of sustainable development. This in part reflects very patchy local authority engagement due in part to the decline in resources and rail skills in many authorities.

The result is franchise agreements which, while taking sustainable development increasingly seriously, sometimes make what can be measured important, rather than measuring what is important. Agreements are often heavy with process objectives such as strategies and working groups, or very specific actions such as numbers of cycle racks to be built and training places to be created.

The future

Much has been achieved, but sustainable development on the railways now needs to take a leap forward. That is not to imply an absence of progress or good will, or a lack of further opportunities to achieve more sustainable development through franchised rail services. This could be supported by ownership of sustainable development. An essential first step should be active government interpretation of objectives like a low-carbon economy, integrated public transport, air quality targets and sustainable housing growth. That might be achieved through a high-level vision for sustainable development on the railways owned by the Department for Transport reflecting both the need to identify where and how rail can make a difference, and in ensuring franchise holders are making appropriate progress through devolved structures and local oversight.

There are four other key areas to consider:

  • Developing a Social Return on Investment (SROI) model for the rail industry
  • New delivery models for station management
  • Bid scoring
  • Better data and guidance.

Developing an SROI model
We need a better methodology for measuring rail’s effectiveness and the benefits of investment. For franchises, an SROI model would be based on contribution made to established government sustainable development policy objectives. It should look at themes including widening employment markets, enhancing access to services, directly providing space for business development and helping to tackle road congestion.

New delivery models for station management

The rail estate is a huge and largely untapped resource for local communities. Franchise bidders should be required to examine the potential for alternative models of station management to achieve social and community ends. Th is could include long- term management of stations and associated buildings being passed over to other bodies such as social enterprises, allowing operators to focus on train operations rather than asset management.

Bid scoring

The wider benefi ts of good rail services need to be properly refl ected in franchise bid marking. Th e percentage of marks for quality – and specifi cally for themes contributing to more sustainable development – should be increased in future competitions. Th e RSSB’s sustainable development principles could be used as a basis for this.

Better data and guidance

Reduced energy and water use, community engagement, metrics to assess how well stations meet community needs, and a more diverse and representative workforce have all been actively pursued via franchising. But despite much positive activity, it remains diffi cult to assess the sum total of rail’s contribution to environmental, social and economic goals.

The quality and accessibility of baseline data on railway activities is often a real weakness. Water and carbon reduction targets are sometimes redacted from franchise agreements and any savings that are made are then not included in public reporting. Similarly, waste reduction targets are limited to rail operations and do not include organisations renting rail land and buildings, even though this is arguably where the majority of waste is generated.
Other environmental impacts, such as noise or air pollution, are not even included in franchise agreements. Accurate, meaningful, comparable and public data is needed for all franchises. One option for delivering this would be via an expanded responsibility for the Office of Rail and Road in ensuring data on aspects of sustainable development (environmental targets, for example) is available and up to date.


Rail franchising was not intended as a way of improving the environmental and social performance of the railway, but in a quiet way this is exactly what it has begun to achieve. Whatever the future management of rail services, the challenge is to build on the successes and create an integrated, low-carbon public transport network responsive to the needs of local communities. Th ese are not ‘nice to haves’ but the mainstay of any decent transport policy.

Ensuring a Sustainable Rail Industry – environmental, community and local economic obligations can be downloaded from the Tracks thought leadership website
Andrew Allen is Policy Analyst for Campaign for Better Transport

2018-06-26T15:36:45+00:00June 26th, 2018|July 2018, Magazine|