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The times they are a-changin’ 

Rails to the rescue

2021 will go down in history as a year of weather extremes. Sicily recorded temperatures of 48.8 °C in August: a new heat record for Europe. Until then, the record was 48 °C in Athens back in 1977. At the end of June, the mercury rose to 49.6 °C in the Canadian village of Lytton. This was another temperature record – the highest temperature recorded in Canadian history. There are similar examples all over the globe.

The world is currently focusing on individual weather phenomena correlated with climate change, with heat waves as just one example. Others include the high temperatures and droughts of some regions and the torrential rains and flooding of others.

There is a wide consensus among scientists as to why these phenomena occur. Known to take place sporadically, they are now happening at a frequency that has never been seen before.

Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th century, humans have made a great deal of progress on a technological and societal level. And burning fossil fuels literally sparked this progress. The invention of the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century was a quantum leap forward in human history, and it drove prosperity, technological development, and globalisation. Initially a blessing, it also has had repercussions that the inventors would not have wanted: the CO₂ emitted when burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. In turn, this causes extreme weather to occur more frequently.

A few years ago, the topic of sustainability was seen as a side note. Today it appears in the headlines of many countries on nearly a daily basis. Regions frequently hit by extreme weather phenomena are naturally interested in sustainability.

When society pays more attention to it, this also promotes awareness among political decision-makers. In turn, they introduce measures, such as climate goals, intended to counteract climate change.

In the United States, the administration in Washington has declared its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. By 2030, emissions are to be reduced by more than 50 % as compared to levels in 2005.

The European Union is also striving for climate neutrality with its ambitious Energy Roadmap 2050. Specifically, its interim goals are to reduce emission levels by 40 % in 2030 and by 55 % in 2040 when compared to levels from 1990.

The desire to reduce emissions is also gaining ground in emerging markets such as China. The PRC has declared its aim to become carbon neutral by 2060.

During the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November 2021, 197 countries negotiated common climate goals, and the result was a pledge to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Even if the concept behind specific measures differs from region to region, there is no doubt that there are serious political endeavours around the world to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels. This is to be achieved through

  • promoting renewable energy sources already known today,
  • technological developments that aim to provide alternatives to fossil fuels,
  • regulatory intervention that makes the use of fossil fuels less attractive or even prohibits it.

These developments have an impact on all industrial sectors, the use of energy in buildings, agriculture, and, of course, on transporting people and goods.

When examining the causes of global CO₂ emissions more closely, it is clear that the mobility sector is a relevant factor, accounting for 16.2 % of emissions. Within this sector, the percentages are distributed very unevenly: roads make up the largest amount at 73 %, with air (11.7 %) and maritime transport (10.5 %) coming in second and third. The railway sector is responsible for a mere 2.5 % of emissions. It is also worth noting that the percentage of passenger and freight kilometres attributed to rail is far higher than 2.5 %. In the European Union, for example, 8.7 % of passenger transport and even 18.7 % of freight transport takes place using rail.

The times they are a-changin’, and rail plays a key role in that respect: shifting transport to rail is an opportunity to mitigate climate change. Additionally, it is an opportunity for the railway system to assert itself as a positive element sustainably shaping global development.

What this means for railways

In essence, these declared climate goals affect the rail system in two ways:

On the one hand, more passenger and freight transport will shift to rail.

If you travel by train, your carbon footprint per kilometre is much smaller than when you get on a plane or in a car. Every kilometre you travel on a plane equals 255 g of CO₂ emissions. Rail travel causes less than a quarter of those emissions: 47 g, to be exact.

When it comes to freight transport, rail also plays a significant role. A single freight train can replace 53 lorries, which is an important contribution to reducing traffic on roads and increasing sustainability in the transport sector.

The rail system is a source of hope for decarbonising mobility. When more people travel by train and more freight is transported by rail, we get closer to meeting international climate goals more quickly.

The result is ambitious investment projects that drive the development of the railway system. For example, in November 2021 the U.S. government agreed to invest more than USD 60 billion in railway infrastructure to make it more attractive and to have more transport take place on rails. In the EU, the European Commission declared 2021 “the Year of Rail” and launched several initiatives that support the expansion and modernisation of the rail sector.

There are similar activities around the globe stimulating public investments in railways.

On the other hand, rail as a green form of transport is also subject to stricter rules, with investments often coupled with conditions.

Even if many of today’s lines have been electrified, and it can be argued that their operations are carbon neutral in theory, the machines used to construct and maintain railway infrastructure usually have internal combustion engines.

The idea is to gradually replace them with machines that have alternative drives: they emit less CO₂, thereby shrinking the entire railway system’s carbon footprint. Many countries have already addressed this aspect using legal or regulatory means, with Europe playing a leading role. Countries such as France, Germany, Austria, or the UK have concrete goals for reductions in the rail sector. Switzerland and Norway have taken things a step further: track maintenance machines have emission limits.

Our contribution to sustainable mobility – it’s on track!

We have been shaping the railway system since 1953, supplying nearly 17,000 machines to 109 countries. We are proud to play our part in creating a strong railway system: it is our contribution to making the most sustainable, greenest, and safest form of transport a success.

Topics relating to innovation and digitalisation are important to us, and our ongoing research allows us to tackle climate change and new challenges. As a partner of railway companies, infrastructure operators and construction companies, we supply our premium quality technologies around the world. They keep rail services running smoothly so passengers and freight arrive at their destination safely and on time.