Network Rail regulation and performance

24.07.07

Environment and the rail industry: challenges from the past and opportunities for the future

With perhaps one of the largest legacy land holdings in the UK, the rail industry has been confronting the issues of managing contaminated land for a long period. Whether at a national or local level, the obligation to provide safe and comprehensive rail transport has required the continued use of large tracts of land as depots, stations, and extensive linear track networks. Given the industry’s crucial role in passenger and freight movement, the ability to address contaminated land and deliver safe transport simultaneously has been challenging. In addition, looking forward, the rail industry-just like any other in transportation-has an obligation to manage its future environmental impact for generations to come. This article briefly examines both sides of these issues and how the industry is rising to the challenge.

URS has been providing land investigation and remediation services to the rail industry since 1997. As discussed, given the breadth of work, the strategies developed by the industry have been phased in order to prioritise works required and spend down available funding in the most cost effective manner.

Effective strategy development for large property portfolios requires creative thinking to utilise available data in a manner that enables effective decision- making. One example of this was URS’ development of a GIS-based risk-ranking model for Network Rail to appraise the potential for a large number of operational rail industry sites to pose risks to the environment. Data pertaining to site use, and the associated hazards, were obtained directly from Network Rail and integrated into a GIS containing environmental data such as groundwater vulnerability, licensed abstraction boreholes and surface water features.

A spreadsheet model was used to integrate the data within a source-pathway-receptor framework and to rank the sites according to the potential for environmental risk. Site visits were made to validate the model results and the outputs have been used by Network Rail to develop a management system focusing on reducing the risks of adverse environmental impacts occurring in the future. The resulting GIS layers were imported into Network Rail’s internal GIS management system and the risk ranked facilities were then made viewable to the Network Rail environment team.

Marrying the results of such work with available budgets culminates in programmed investigations, risk assessments, and, where necessary, active remediation. Not surprisingly, all fieldwork conducted across rail-related sites is controlled by extensive safety review infrastructure which governs all activities whether or not they are related to environmental improvement. This requires competency training and auditing of all service providers in contaminated land consultancy.

Safety and access issues also drive land assessment and remediation strategies to work within constraints not faced by many other industries. To this end, creative design of field works and remedial infrastructure installations is very important. The rail sector must be able to present responsible land cleanup strategies to regulators that also incorporate these restrictions. Existing infrastructure must be utilised to the extent practical in such design. Equally important is that consultants must be able to work effectively with large-scale contractors whose main product normally involves much larger projects such as track and signalling improvements in delivering bespoke designs in often physically constrained settings.

As the rail industry has sought to repair its historic footprint on land quality, there are efforts now to address future environmental impact in sustainable and responsible ways. URS has recently been appointed by the Rail Safety and Standards Board to carry out a review of alternative fuels and ‘energy carriers’ for UK rail vehicles. This study is being completed to address a need for the country’s rail network to respond to the growing pressures of finding alternative sources of energy which, as has become clear from government policy, also has to be achieved in a sustainable manner.

The objective of the study is to identify fuels and energy carriers that could be used to replace conventional gas oil, sulphur free diesel or ultra low sulphur diesel, and to provide a ranking of the preferred options based on a number of economic, environmental and safety criteria. This project, overseen by the Future Fuel Technologies Group, a cross-industry group meeting under the chairmanship of the Department for Transport, considers the potential of relatively radical and long-term solutions such as biogas, methanol, ammonia, battery technology and flywheels. These could work in isolation or in conjunction as hybrids with internal combustion engines, or even the Stirling engine (a type of external combustion engine) which have been used successfully in Sweden.

It is clear that when it comes to environmental obligations, the rail industry has been acting responsibly and proactively for a long time and will continue to do so. The challenges of maintaining critical transport infrastructure will continue to be met, but will always require diligence and continued future planning.

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