Sustainable Development and the Railway in Great Britain

Sustainable Development and the Railway in Great Britain


S Atkins, J Hayat, MVA Consultancy, UK


Rail has a positive environmental image, but must meet the challenges posed by improved environmental performance in other modes and wider socio-economic obligations. Key issues include energy, noise, procurement, externalities, and social exclusion.


Railways generally have a positive reputation in terms of environmental impact and sustainability. As a public transport mode rail is relatively efficient in its use of fuel, land and resources; provides commuter and freight services that support industry and wealth creation; and is available to almost all, regardless of age, disability and car ownership. However, this reputation is coming under strain. As road vehicles use cleaner fuels, more efficient engines and exhaust after-treatments, their environmental performance can outweigh rail in some respects. Is the high cost of taxpayer support for rail really delivering the economic benefits sought by businesses from the railway? In Great Britain rail is used more by wealthy and middle class people, especially for commuting in London and the South East, yet receives significant amounts of public subsidy. Is this socially sustainable as we seek an efficient, fair and just society?

MVA has recently carried out a literature review of Sustainable Development and the Railway in Great Britain, for the GB Rail Safety and Standards Board. In this paper we select, explain and discuss what we consider to be the five greatest challenges and opportunities for the railway in Great Britain to become more sustainable. In addressing these issues, the railway will need to meet the challenges posed by modal competition and the wider economic and social obligations that are required within both European and national legislation.

Sustainable procurement
Taking externalities into account
Social exclusion

First we consider the imperative of climate change alongside the requirement to reduce noxious pollution that affects local air quality. Both are intimately connected to the sources and quantities of energy consumed. For electric traction there are issues of generation from renewable sources, carbon and pollutant emissions from power stations and energy losses in transmission. For diesel traction the issues concern the nature of the fuel composition, engine efficiency, exhaust treatments and potential moves towards biodiesel, hybrids and hydrogen. For both power sources there is a need to consider the efficiency per seat kilometre taking into account increasing train mass, and the possible inclusion of transport in emissions trading schemes.

Noise is the subject of the European Noise Directive (END) and will require increasing attention as noise mapping and the identification of locations exceeding European standards proceeds. What remedial action is required, and at what cost?

Sustainable procurement requires a radical re-thinking of the objectives and agendas of commissioning bodies. First, the costs of products needs to take into account the full costs (including externalities) of their production, their use and their scrappage ? the whole life economic, social and environmental costs. This will be a challenge for manufacturers, but even more so for funding bodies as the inevitable short term funding constraints mitigate against the longer term advantages and efficiencies of sustainable purchasing. But as whole life and environmental costing requirements enter the wider markets for passenger and freight movement, rail?s advantages will come to the fore and could lead to a market expansion.

The inclusion of the wider economic, environmental and social effects into decision making frameworks continues to present a challenge. Whilst some argue that UK practice relies excessively on the cost-benefit approach, nevertheless inclusion of more accurate reflections of the external costs of pollution and carbon into investment decisions will cause a re-consideration of priorities. Moving towards transport user pricing that reflects the full external costs, particularly for highway modes, will have significant and widespread effects.

Finally, definitions of social sustainability generally reflect a concern about the rights of individuals and communities to enjoy the pursuit of healthy and socially rewarding lives, free from discrimination, danger, crime and anti-social behaviour. These definitions incorporate a commitment that people should be treated with dignity and respect. Social sustainability often reflects a concern about the distribution across society of non-material goods and well-being. In the United States this has become known as ?environmental justice? or, for transport applications, ?just transportation?. As GB moves towards equality impact assessments and health impact assessments, the social impacts of public investment will come under greater scrutiny.


Association for European Transport