Sustainability in Rail: A greener future for public transport

Posted on 23 January 2024

Promoting sustainability in the rail industry is no longer a choice; it's a necessity. As we tackle environmental challenges, the role of rail in providing sustainable, efficient and environmentally friendly transportation solutions has never been more important.

In this blog, we explore what sustainable rail looks like and how we can work towards a greener future for the industry.

Promoting sustainability in rail

Rail transport is important in a variety of ways to promote sustainable development, provide a green alternative to alternative modes of transport, help reduce carbon emissions, prevent and provide congestion air quality improves in cities.

The resource-efficient nature of rail transport, which can efficiently move large quantities of goods and passengers, contributes to resource preservation and waste reduction.

Sustainable rail systems offer economic growth opportunities, enhance land use efficiency, and provide long-term viability in an environmentally conscious world. Safety benefits, global connectivity, and alignment with sustainable development goals further underscore the importance of promoting sustainability in rail, making it a fundamental component of a more eco-friendly, efficient, and globally interconnected transportation system.


The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently highlighted that diversifying energy sources and enhancing the efficiency of the rail sector can lead to decreased fuel consumption and reduced carbon dioxide and local pollutant emissions. The International Transport Forum (ITF) suggests that effective policies can potentially decrease transport carbon emissions by up to 70% by 2050.

Approximately three-quarters of passenger rail travel occurs on electric trains, making rail transport the only widely electrified mode of transportation today. This diversity is due to the various methods of electricity generation. Electrified railways still depend on potentially polluting sources, like coal or gas-fired power plants, for electrical generation unless renewable energy or nuclear power alternatives are available.

Freight trains rely mainly on diesel and electric engines, a hybrid technology that dates back to the 1950s. These locomotives combine electric and fossil fuel engines, with the diesel engine generating electricity for traction motors at each wheel, providing the necessary pulling power. Notably, North America, Russia, and China lead in rail freight tonnage and predominantly use diesel-electric hybrid locomotives.

To address emissions from train operations, it is imperative to explore and develop alternative fuels and power sources.

Resource scarcity poses another significant challenge for the industry. Humanity is currently destroying resources 50% faster than nature can replenish them, and some resources may not be restored at all.

Organisations such as the International Union of Railways (UIC) are actively working to promote sustainability by managing resources such as ballast, concrete, steel, and water. This approach reduces external costs through vigilant monitoring and noise control, while also curtailing airborne particulate emissions. These efforts align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially those aimed at addressing climate change.

Stats and facts on sustainability in rail
  • A freight train can move a ton of cargo nearly 500 miles on just one gallon of fuel, making it more efficient than trucks and other modes of transportation.

  • Passenger rail emits about 20-30% less carbon dioxide (CO2) per passenger mile than cars and planes.

  • 3 times lower noise emissions - Rail freight transport causes only 1/3 of the noise in freight transport.

Technology Innovations for Rail

Cutting-edge technologies can significantly enhance the efficiency and sustainability of train operations with minimal financial outlay. Curbing idling times during waits for other trains to enter or exit freight yards not only keeps services running smoothly but also reduces emissions.

The utilisation of robust mobile devices for inspecting railway carriages and conducting track repairs plays a vital role in preserving efficiency with existing assets, thereby mitigating the necessity for expansion. Furthermore, innovations like acoustic monitoring can detect equipment issues before they manifest.

In the passenger sector, rail operators can leverage data to meet customer expectations for flexibility, real-time travel updates, omnichannel ticketing choices, and transparent information through a Smart Rail Route Map.

Rail operators can also deploy robust mobile devices to bring information and control closer to the front lines, enabling swifter responses. For instance, passenger stations can monitor environmental conditions to ensure comfort and safety, and workers equipped with durable tablets can make informed, data-driven decisions on the spot.

What does this mean for Rail Recruitment?

Shifting the focus to sustainable rail practices also brings significant changes to the recruitment and skill development of more hands-on roles such as track workers, controllers of site safety, and other on-site operational staff. As rail companies increasingly commit to sustainability, these roles will evolve, requiring new skills and knowledge to meet the emerging demands of a greener rail industry.

The emphasis on sustainability will require these professionals to be more proficient in using technology to enhance efficiency and reduce waste. For instance, digital tools can be used for more precise planning of maintenance work, reducing the need for unnecessary travel and material usage. They will also need to be familiar with the latest developments in sustainable rail technology to effectively implement and oversee these systems.

In terms of recruitment, rail companies will need to look for candidates who are not only skilled in traditional rail work but are also adaptable, willing to learn new practices, and have a basic understanding of environmental issues. Continuous professional development will be key, with companies investing in training programs to ensure that their workforce is up-to-date with the latest sustainable practices and technologies.

In a world where environmental consciousness is no longer an option but of high importance, the rail industry stands at the forefront of sustainable transportation. From reducing carbon emissions and alleviating urban congestion to its resource-efficient nature and resource preservation, rail is, without a doubt working towards a future of sustainability.

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