On the right track to sustainability – Trains

Greentings Everyone!

Trains have been around since 1804, the year when the first steam train — named Penydarren tramroad — made its maiden voyage at an average speed of 10 miles per hour from Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon. You must be wondering, what bizarre names for towns where the first ever train journey occurred…well, that’s Wales for you. These locales will forever be engraved in history, a history that has been reshaped by this invention, an invention that has altered the course society to this day. For those of you hoping that this post will be about bashing the Welsh and their odd language, please navigate away from this website while you still can. Today, we will be talking about how these contraptions from the 19th century are making a comeback in the 21st century and how they continue to rank in first place when it comes to the “most” sustainable mode of transportation. I have put most in quotation marks simply because, no mode of transportation is entirely clean or green, unless you consider walking or cycling.

“It is only a short 5-minute walk away”

When someone says this, we all know that this is to be taken lightly, and that wherever our destination is, it is most likely more than a 5-minute walk away. Although walking, running, and cycling are the greenest means of transportation —and should be used as regularly as possible for trips that make sense—more often than not, they are ineffective at transporting people or goods over longer distances. Please note that we are not taking into consideration the ultra-marathon runners and cyclists of this world. An average person wouldn’t be able to cover long distances on any of these modes of transportation. This brings us to the main point for today’s post and provides us with pertinent questions to be answered; does rail travel continue to be the “most” sustainable mode of transportation? How does innovation play a part in this? To answer these questions, we must first look at what alternative modes of transport there are, to which we can quickly come up with five. From the conventional car which, from here on out we will refer to as the gas guzzler, the Electric vehicle—or EV for all those Gen Z’s out there— the bus, the airplane and finally the boat.

All aboard!

We will be staying away from analyzing energy intensity of passenger that each mode produces as this has been done elsewhere by professionals with PHD’s to their name. Instead, we will be giving straight forward points as to why trains— whether they are electric, or diesel powered—continue to be the most effective & efficient at transferring a group of people—or freight— from point A to point B with the least harm to the environment. We will also be talking about innovation that may be implemented to make our next train journey even more sustainable. We mentioned energy intensity a sentence ago, for those of you unfamiliar with this term, this basically signifies the energy consumption divided by the passenger-kilometer or in other words, the fuel efficiency divided by the occupancy of the transportation. A great resource with hard data is the European Environment Agency webpage. They provide several publications on the various modes of transport, the current state of affairs in Europe and even their view on what the future of transportation has in store for us.

Getting back to the points and innovations:

  1. Green: Electric trains Red: Diesel Trains…does green mean go?

It is estimated that 55% of the energy consumed by the rail industry is generated by diesel, the other 44% by electricity and 1% by biofuels. This means that the majority of trains today still operate on fossil fuels directly or indirectly. In 2016 electric locomotives were responsible for 70% of the passenger-kilometers traveled and 48% of the freight-kilometer shipped. Reducing the dependency of trains on diesel will be critical to the industry’s sustainability efforts. Luckily it makes both business and environmental sense to bet on this. As of today, greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometer continue to be 5 times lower on rail than on the road. When we take a look at freight trains, they use 80% less energy than trucks per ton of freight carried. These statistics have held true over the years as rail use has remained relatively stable since the early 2000’s. The only countries in the world where rail use has increased in the last 20 years is China & Australia. As innovation provides us with greener technology, policy makers shift towards mass modes of transportation to reduce congestion in urban areas and legacy rail users such as India move towards the modernization of their fleet, we may see a strong rebound in rail use.

2. Are we gathering speed on mass transportation systems?

Gas guzzlers on a highway lane can transport around 2500 people per hour, that is equivalent to having 625 cars. When we take a look at a rail line, it can move over 50,000 people per hour. This significant difference in efficiency is further magnified when we consider multiple rail lines at all hours of the day…nay, at all the hours of the year! The efficiency at which trains are able to transfer passengers and freight is unmatched, making it the backbone or workhorse of our current or any future mass transportation system. We must clarify here that mass transportation, not only incorporates trains, but also trams, metros, commercial flights, buses, and maritime transportation. All of these other modes of transportation should be feeder networks for trains. Fortunately, momentum is growing on train travel around the world, there are however those who continue to challenge this narrative. On one side we have those who strongly believe that a developed and sustainably minded planet is not a place where the poor have cars, but rather where the rich use the public transportation. Although it may seem like an unachievable dream, this would place us on track to reducing externalities of transportation. On the other side we have the supporters of the “everyone should replace their gas guzzlers with new and ultra-modern EV” as the solution to our pollution problems. While both fields of thought do provide us with a better vision for the future, one stands out as sustainable, whereas the other has many hidden externalities which are not being addressed in the public sphere. By this I mean, the rarely mentioned negative effects on the environment from mining for rare earth minerals, metals & other materials required to produce these EV’s. Another externality that we would like to raise awareness on is the environmental cost of replacing a fully functional gas guzzler with that of a newly produced EV. Yes, we agree that pollution in our cities may be considerably reduced, but if the electricity being used to power these EV’s is generated from fossil fuels, we are simply transferring the problem elsewhere. If EV’s interest you, we will have a post out soon on these.

The solution is right in front of our eyes!

3. Innovation on and off the track

Innovation is a very broad term to define new methods of doing business. Over the years it has brought along with it—for the most part—changes which have increased efficiency and effectiveness on a wide variety of topics. Recently, we have been hearing a lot from plane manufacturers about innovations in combustion, propulsion, and even composite material usage. All these innovations have provided us with more fuel-efficient planes. Trains, continue to outperform these planes by a considerable amount. A train journey between London and Madrid emits around 43kg’s of CO2 per passenger, and that goes up to around 118kg’s of CO2 per passenger if a flight is taken. These 118kg’s go up even further to 265kg’s per passenger if you consider secondary effects from high altitude. That is 5 times more negative externalities per passenger than traveling by train! It is great that we are innovating and making plane journeys more efficient, but they are still a long way away from the efficiency of rail travel. When we take a look at trains and the rail network, innovation has helped in expanding network electrification, it has provided us with a glimpse into hybrid locomotive solutions— where older diesel-powered trains have been retrofitted with rechargeable storage systems— which are powered by energy from regenerative braking, and even a more recent innovation of using hydrogen gas as the power source. Each of these innovations has provided the industry with alternatives that reduce the overall emissions but bring with them adoption challenges and hefty price tags.

The innovations mentioned above are changes to the way we power the trains, there are however other ways to maximize energy and make trains even more efficient. Operational software developments are one of the ways that can be used to optimize efficiencies. Software’s such as trip optimizers, intelligent infrastructures, and conductor behavior analysis—in other words, how said conductor applies throttle and brakes— can bring with them added efficiencies. Another way is via the design of the trains, or in other words, building them with aerodynamics in mind. Aerodynamic designs can reduce friction and therefore reduce energy consumptions to as much as 30%. If we take a look at newly developed composite materials, these can reduce weight and/or increase capacity of cabins. All of these innovations in this space bring with them efficiencies but also an incremental cost, but is this cost greater than the cost on our environment if we just sit idly by?


As pressure is put on governments across the world to meet their net-zero climate goals, an emphasis has been placed on sustainable transportation, with rail transport deemed as an essential part to meeting global climate targets. We have seen a policy shift that is encouraging towards railway growth. France recently banned domestic flights where effective train alternatives are available, the EU announced a whopping €260 billion investment in clean rail transport, the US is not far behind with a $102 billion investment in modernizing freight and passenger, India committed to increasing freight transported by rail to 45% and electrifying whole network by 2030 and finally China who plans to double its rail footprint by 2035. All of these steps provide us with a glimpse of a more rail centric future, where you no longer have to feel guilty about traveling. The more sustainable rail becomes, the more clients it will attract. This increase in clients means more resources to invest back into improving sustainability and efficiency. All signals are green, let’s get going! Generation Clean!

One Comment

  1. Gloria

    Great thoughts, congratulations!

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