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Sustainability and the fallout from scrapped electrification plans

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The fallout from the Government’s decision to scrap three major electrification projects, in Wales, the Midlands and the North, is inevitably a hot topic on the subject of sustainability. Mary Creagh MP, chair of the environmental audit committee, voiced her frustrations as keynote speaker at the Rail Sustainability Summit in September, commenting: “We could have HS3, HS4 and HS5 by the time they electrify the Great Western main line.”

A vocal opponent of transport secretary Chris Grayling’s summer announcements, Mary used the example of the electrification programme to raise her concerns that sustainability is falling down the Government’s agenda. Brexit, she added, is the biggest threat to environmental rights in 40 years, and the industry must remain vigilant and focused, as the public did not vote to see the environment degraded.

As chair of Parliament’s environmental audit committee, Mary assesses if governmental bodies are adequately contributing to environmental protection and sustainable development. A report labelled ‘Meeting Carbon Budgets: Closing the policy gap’, which her committee helped to produce in June, noted that the Government isn’t on track to meet its own emission targets. Overall, UK greenhouse gas emissions are 42 per cent lower than in 1990, around halfway to its 2050 commitments, but progress is stalling and new policies are urgently needed. The report also found that transport emissions are a particular issue, as these figures are rising.

Not only does the railway contribute to climate change, it can be critically disabled by products of climate change too, demonstrated by such events as flooding, erosion, landslips, overheated tracks and overheated power lines. The network’s vulnerability was emphasised by Storm Angus last winter, with ballast wash-aways in Exeter, and by storms in 2014, which battered the Devon coast and caused Dawlish sea wall to collapse under the railway line, cutting Cornwall and much of Devon off from the rest of the UK.


Network Rail describes electrification as essential for introducing faster, greener and more reliable train journeys. The numerous delays and failures have destroyed trust, added Mary, but there is much more to be lost from the schemes.

James Howles is the rail director of BakerHicks, the design subsidiary of Morgan Sindall Group and a key supporter of the summit. He has 15 years’ experience in the rail sector and examined the negative impact that the cancelled electrification programme will have on rolling stock, people and the environment in the North.

Run by Arriva UK Trains, the Northern franchise is to order 281 new vehicles by 2020, half of which will be electrically powered and half diesel. Meanwhile, First Group’s TransPennine Express franchise is to order 220 vehicles, a mixture of electric and bi-mode trains.

James commented that the impact of this new rolling stock on sustainability will be “significantly compromised” without the equivalent infrastructure development. It may mark the end of the Pacers on those franchises but it also means that, while diesel cars are on a finite programme of retirement, railways are left with the prospect of diesel-powered trains running on the network indefinitely.

James stressed that cancelling electrification is a backwards step for the North and urged the soon-to-be launched devolved authority Transport for the North to prepare for, and fight, the case for a more sustainable way forward.

Bombardier’s head of engineering for Crossrail, Mark Ellis, added that electrification would have killed bi-mode trains, but that they are now a necessity.

Working from the rolling stock manufacturer’s Litchurch Lane facility, Mark has worked on the development of the Aventra programme and revealed it was intended to be an electrical multiple unit only, but that the team had to return to the drawing board. Nevertheless, Bombardier will be looking at exporting the resulting bi-modes.

Visiting Bombardier’s Derby neighbour Rolls Royce to look at alternative technologies, Mark said that fuel cells would probably not be ready for another ten years. Therefore, a diesel engine in a bi-mode with an electrical system is currently the best solution.

Safety’s poor sister

Since the last Rail Sustainability Summit on 8 November 2016 – the day of the United States’ presidential election – there has been a lot of political change, but the need for sustainable economies and a sustainable rail sector has not changed. So noted returning host Adam Crossley, who works as environment director for one of the summit’s key supporters, Skanksa.

The conversation around sustainability has only gained prominence in recent years. This is emphasised by the fact it was only the third Rail Sustainability Summit and that Network Rail this year held its first sustainable leaders conference, revealed by its environmental systems manager Rebecca Harris. As a result, sustainability has been viewed as the poor sister to safety.

There is, of course, more to sustainability than just environmental considerations. Two other key areas are economy, such as value for money and economic growth, and society, including wellbeing and communities. Thus, sustainability is about getting the right balance between the needs of the environment, the economy and society. According to the United Nations, any development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs is classed as sustainable development.

In the rail-franchising programme, sustainability is promoted through such tools as the mandatory sustainable development strategy for franchise bidders, who must also set baseline environmental targets. Using the example of the recently awarded South Western franchise, Department for Transport’s head of stations policy Peter Batten said the department rewards bidders who set out innovative proposals to exceed these targets. In First MTR’s case, innovation rather than finances was the deciding factor.

Ultimately, the length of franchises are barriers to innovation, Peter said, because they do not incentivise train operating companies (TOCs) to introduce new ideas or methods as they are given a clear mandate.

But GTR Thameslink’s head of environment Jason Brooker disagreed. He argued that TOCs need lengthier franchise agreements, because that is in the very essence of sustainability. The idea of potentially conflicting or contrasting sustainability strategies every seven years – the length of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise – isn’t sustainable in nature, especially considering the tight – or in his case non-existent – budget they have to work with.

Another factor that holds sustainability back, as raised by RSSB’s head of sustainable development Anthony Perret, is that sustainability lacks the same “burning platform” that safety did in the post-privatisation landscape.


Returning to Bombardier’s Aventra platform, Mark Ellis explained the sustainable elements that have shaped its new family of trains. Starting in the design phase, Bombardier took an active decision to concentrate on lifecycle rather than initial cost.

The design uses FLEXX eco bogies, reducing the mass of the train and, resultantly, its energy usage and noise. The train’s paint is water-based, stringent requirements have been issued to suppliers on re-usable packaging equipment and the trains can feature driver advisory systems (DAS) and intelligent stabling functions as well. DAS enables drivers to monitor the timetabled path of a train to ascertain whether the train will reach its next timing point on schedule, and to give an advisory speed for this to be achieved, while the intelligent stabling functions can automatically shut a train down, including lowering pantographs, when it is not in service.

Once the Aventras reach their end of life, Bombardier is targeting a recoverability of at least 95 per cent. This is based on data from its predecessor, the Electrostars, which had a recyclability rate of 90.2 per cent and recoverability of 95.2 per cent. Recoverability is defined by Bombardier as the percentage of materials that can be diverted from the end-of-life stream to be material recycled or energy recovered. In summary, Bombardier put sustainability at the heart of the Aventra’s lifecycle.

Stealing with pride

Other speakers shared their experiences on various approaches to sustainability. Rail Delivery Group’s head of railway planning Mary Gaynor said that it can be difficult to try radical technologies on railways, because of the magnitude and severity of problems that could occur. The industry should therefore “steal with pride” from other sectors, to look at best practices and learn from them.

Drawing from his work on projects with the National Grid and Yorkshire Water, AECOM’s Robert Spencer touched on developing an understanding of natural capital for the benefit of the environment and finances. By measuring the strengths of natural capital – woodlands, for example, which absorb rain water and potentially prevent houses from being flooded – landowners can have a proactive approach to managing environmental impact and see them as assets rather than liabilities.

Network Rail’s Sarah Borien explored one of the three areas of sustainability that many didn’t touch on – society, and social performance – looking at health and wellbeing, volunteering and local labour and procurement.

The final speaker on this topic was Willy Bontinck, who travelled from Belgium on Eurostar for the conference. Representing the International Union of Railways (UIC), he spoke about sustainability more broadly and looked at the positives of rail sustainability. For example, he revealed that railways consume only 1.3 per cent of all energy used in the transport sector, but they deliver 9.1 per cent of all journeys, emphasising how energy efficient rail is compared to other modes of transport.


Transport for London’s sustainability coordinator Helen Woolston disclosed that it does not have a single strategy on the subject, but rather it is a key part of the mainstream strategy. Representatives from HS2 and Crossrail 2 also spoke about how sustainability is being embedded into these huge infrastructure projects from day one.

HS2’s sustainability manager Laura Russell has been making sure that – as well as other forms of public transport – the high-speed line will link into existing walking and cycling networks, especially at Euston station. A Lincolnshire nursery has also procured seven billion trees and shrubs as part of planting on Phase One to ensure the impact it has is reduced. Laura added that HS2 will be re-using 86 per cent of the 130 million tonnes of excavated material – Crossrail generated ‘only’ eight million – to build the line, but it is also working with the Environment Agency to use it for flood defence schemes.

Crossrail 2’s consents and environment manager Nick Giesler said that they hope to kick off the environmental impact assessment soon with an attitude of “what they can fix” in mind, designing-in sustainability from scratch, as well as synergising stations into communities and green spaces.

Bringing together the end-to-end supply chain, the Rail Sustainability Summit provided the perfect opportunity to share best practice and give sustainability the important platform it needs. Thanks to the summit’s hosts, Addleshaw Goddard, and to Craig Hales, rail sustainability manager at Skanksa, and Nick Craven, sustainable development manager at UIC, for helping to put the programme together.

Read more: RVE 2017 – New Venue, More Exhibitors




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