Making the railway truly sustainable

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 1

Sustainability must be at the heart of the rail industry’s decision-making, says Shamit Gaiger, head of national programmes at the RSSB.

When the rail minister, Claire Perry MP, launched a new set of Sustainable Development Principles earlier this year, she told her audience of senior rail managers that the principles would be the foundation for all future rail franchises let by the DfT. 

The 10 principles (see box out) are underpinned by a belief that responsible social and economic behaviour can boost performance, and will enable the industry to operate in an increasingly immediate economy where customer needs and convenience are paramount. 

Progress is already being made. For example, in the north of England disused assets at some stations are being put into service for local communities. Some train operators are helping people get back to work with free travel to interviews and two months’ free travel when they find a job. And 60% of Crossrail work has gone to SMEs, with the project creating nearly 3,000 local jobs. 

In addition, the industry is on target to reduce traction carbon emissions ppm (parts per million) by 38% by 2019. All routes now have climate change adaptation plans in place for increased instances of extreme weather. And all new franchises include ambitious traction and non-traction reduction targets, zero waste to landfill and a commitment to delivering community and social benefits. 

Challenges to meet going forward 

But, as expectations change, the rail industry must change, too, if it is to build on the success of the past 20 years. Here are some challenges that need to be met: 

First, there should be a renewed focus on customers and the communities we serve, with a deeper understanding of the travel behaviour of passengers and non-passengers at a local level. 

At a time when local government is under pressure, rail can take a wider view on how stations serve customers, particularly where assets are not being fully utilised. Acting more like supermarkets, to understand an area’s potential, will enable rail to offer a better service. 

Second, we must move from low-cost, short-term decision-making, focused on quick payback to long termism that benefits rail as a whole. Our industry is not unique in this, but we do face particular issues due to structure and funding and its public service nature. 

Skills are a prime example where a lack of investment, an ageing workforce and competition from other sectors for similar skills have combined to have a damaging impact. There is a critical need to upskill the current workforce and bring in new talent. This, of course, is a long-term investment where returns may not meet the requirements of finance directors, but without it the sector faces costs of nearly £700m a year by 2024. The cost to the economy could be more than £1bn. 

Government and the industry are addressing the challenge by developing a coherent skills plan to enhance productivity and reduce skills shortages in response to targets for apprenticeships set by government. This is welcome but delivery needs to be supported by leadership, collaboration and investment.

Third, and the most difficult challenge, is the potential threat to rail’s modal share from disruptive technologies that could jeopardise future ridership. 

In a rapidly changing economy, passengers demand immediate, personalised information and options. Apps like Citymapper and businesses such as Uber are changing travel behaviours in a way not seen before, capitalising on the sharing and information economy. 

At the same time autonomous vehicles are no longer science fiction; they have the potential to increase road capacity by up to six times and, according to insurance industry reports, cut accidents by a staggering 80%. With the UK set to be a world leader in this emerging technology, a recent survey showed that 39% of people would consider using driverless cars. 

A combination of autonomous vehicles and the spread of an Uber-type immediate door-to-door service has the potential to offer convenient, value for money, on-demand travel. Add to this the likelihood that electric cars will become more carbon efficient and the threat to rail becomes very clear. As a sector we have yet to respond to the challenge of disruptive technologies, but we must before it is too late. 

Sustainability, therefore, is about rail’s survival as a commercially viable sector. At the heart of a sustainable railway we need to put three key ideas: customers, current and future; decisions that serve us in the long term; and the fact that we operate as a system and within a wider transport and economic system that is changing. As a sector that is so focused on timetables, let’s hope we’re not too late.

Ten ways to make railway sustainable: 

  1. Customer driven – putting customers at the heart of the railway
  2. An accessible railway – creating an inclusive, affordable and accessible railway that provides good information to its customers
  3. Providing and end-to-end journey – work with other transport modes to provide an integrated, accessible transport system
  4. Being an employer of choice – respect, encourage and develop a diverse workforce, support its wellbeing and actively consider and address the challenges of the future labour market
  5. Reducing the industry’s environmental impact – operate and improve the business in a way that minimises the negative impacts and maximises the benefits of the railway to the environment
  6. Carbon smart – achieve long-term reductions in carbon emissions through improved energy efficiency, new power sources, helping others make more carbon efficient journeys
  7. Having a positive social impact – focus on local impacts and communities through better understanding and engagement, engaging in local plans and asset use
  8. Supporting the economy – boost the productivity and competitiveness of the UK, at a national and regional level, through efficient services and by facilitating agglomeration and catalysing economic regeneration
  9. Optimising the railway – maximise the rail networks capability, improve efficiency through working practices and new technology to deliver a transport system that offers good value for money
  10. Being transparent – promote a culture of open and accountable decision making and measure, monitor and report publicly on progress towards sustainability

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]



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