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Sustainability – putting it all into practice

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In a world becoming ever-greener, sustainability is one of the latest concepts that the railway engineer has to wrestle with. It is now being used as part of the scoring process when Network Rail is assessing bids for new work, yet some people are still struggling to fully understand the principles involved.

In issue 106 (August 2013), Tertius Beneke – principal environment specialist for Network Rail – explained how the United Nations defines sustainability and how it applies to railway work. Now Network Rail has launched its Sustainable Development Strategy, and the introduction in new tenders of a minimum 5% allocation to sustainability has certainly put the topic on the agenda.

This puts the onus squarely on contractors to meet sustainable targets. Going forward, they must demonstrate that they have a clear understanding of the importance of embracing a sustainable approach in all that they do – and that’s not just in terms of the bottom line.

Implementing a sustainable strategy

To understand how this new requirement affects them, The Rail Engineer spoke with one of the largest of those contractors. Sam Brewitt is sustainability manager at Balfour Beatty Rail.

“I agree with Tertius Beneke when he says that you must engage the ‘hearts and minds’ of individuals,” Sam commented. “The principles of sustainability do not change – that is, trying to achieve a balance between economic, environmental and social impacts. However, it is important to note that when applied at different levels the challenges you face are often different. It is therefore essential to define what sustainability means to you as an organisation.”

Sam explained how Balfour Beatty Rail has taken the sustainability lead from the wider Balfour Beatty Group and offers some advice to contractors keen to bring sustainability to the table.

“I have worked for Balfour Beatty Rail for over 12 years and in that time have witnessed a company that, to a large extent, operated in a sustainable way but without necessarily recognising it as being under the sustainability ‘banner’. While this had been encouraging, the good things we were doing were not being pulled together in a dedicated, sustainability programme until about four years ago.

“A dedicated, co-ordinated approach to sustainability is an important one, at least initially, in order to drive cultural change and embed sustainability principles in an organisation. The Balfour Beatty Group introduced a dedicated sustainability programme in 2009, influenced largely by clients such as the Highways Agency and the water companies. It was also simply ‘the right thing to do’ in terms of operating a successful business over the long term. Why would you not want to attract and develop talented individuals, have a healthy workforce, or save cost through reducing your carbon emissions?

“So, our main drivers to date have not come from meeting Network Rail’s requirements which, until their specific sustainability targets were rolled out, made implementing sustainability a challenge.

“Balfour Beatty Rail implements dedicated sustainability action plans on all its major projects in order to help deliver our sustainability targets. This is not mandated by Network Rail on every project so you might ask, why do it? These plans take time to develop and implement, but we believe they are essential to deliver local action and realise associated benefits.”

In the rail industry, Balfour Beatty Rail is amongst the leaders in terms of sustainability, because it has been influenced from other industries and is large enough to support a dedicated sustainability programme. It has also had the benefit of being able to learn and share sustainability best practice from being part of a larger group. However, Sam is keen to stress that, like everybody else, “we don’t always get it right”.

“You cannot underestimate the importance of getting the basics right,” Sam explained. “Having projects adequately resourced, an effective management system and commercial controls are a few examples of the building blocks of a sustainable business.”

Across the industry

So what advice does Sam have for other contractors, in terms of implementing and embedding sustainability?

“The ultimate aim is to ensure that the principles of sustainability are applied at every level of an organisation and are the responsibility of everyone. The challenge is to work out how to achieve this and what works for your own organisation. Do you fully resource a dedicated sustainability team, but risk alienating the very thing you want to integrate by creating a culture of ‘it’s the sustainability team’s responsibility’? At the same time, not having enough resource to co-ordinate sustainability and raise awareness to the point that everyone understands and owns sustainability is also a risk. There is no right or wrong but what matters is that, whatever resource is applied, it delivers results.”

As sustainability becomes embedded within the industry, Sam questions whether there will be a need for a separate sustainability section in future tenders.

“Ultimately, in the longer term, there shouldn’t really be a need to have a separate sustainability score. It must be the responsibility of all departments involved, from HR to procurement to the delivery team, and therefore sustainable thinking should be evident in every aspect of the tender return.

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“Going forward, it is essential to create a culture where employees adopt a sustainability mind-set and consider all three areas of sustainability when making decisions on a daily basis. They must ask, ‘in addition to cost, what is the impact on people, the environment and on the communities in which we work?’.”

Sustainability in practice

The first rule to instill around putting sustainability into practice is that it must embrace more than just efficiencies. ‘How to do more with less’ has become a business mantra for all in recent years and, while it would be churlish as a business to not respect that view, forgetting or ignoring other areas of responsibility is not an option. As Sam has stressed, putting an equal focus on all aspects – social, environmental and economic – is crucial when embedding sustainability.

“We do so much ‘good’ work out there, but sometimes we don’t always recognise and capture the wider sustainability benefits,” said Sam. “Therefore it is key to raise awareness. Take, for example, the Hainault Blockade – delivered by Track Partnership (a collaboration between London Underground and Balfour Beatty Rail). Traditionally, we would spend numerous weekends to do 19 days work but for Hainault the railway was shut for 12 consecutive days, during which time this part of the London Underground upgrade was completed.

“This approach not only generated a cost saving in the region of £4.8 million and reduced disruption to train services, but the additional sustainability benefits included reduced carbon emissions because there were fewer journeys to and from the worksite for plant and people, not to mention safer for staff who were effectively on the road less. Weekend noise and vibration for the community was cut drastically too. We all need to get into the habit of capturing this best practice and selling and sharing it!”

Look, learn, share… then look again

Once the concept of sustainability has been embedded in an organisation, embracing it, almost without thinking, should become second nature – inevitably spawning a ripple effect that reveals other potential sustainability benefits.

As Sam points out: “When people start to realise that they are implementing sustainability and doing a huge amount already on a day-to- day basis, it may lead to them thinking of better ways to approach activities by asking questions such as ‘Is this the most sustainable method of construction?’ Or ‘can we redesign this to use fewer materials?’

“At Balfour Beatty Rail, we are starting to see these questions being asked in practice. On the North West Electrification Project we replaced traditional timber shuttering for concrete OLE foundations with a cardboard alternative. As well as being cheaper, this reduced resource consumption, waste, and manual handling risk.

“Another interesting question is, do you really need to travel to meetings when teleconference or WebEx meetings can often work just as well? At Balfour Beatty Rail we are working to increase and monitor the use of conference call and WebEx facilities. This may seem trivial, but 48% of our scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions are from company vehicle travel (46% is plant fuel use). Gas and electricity use is actually a drop in the ocean in terms of carbon emissions, although we should still focus on reducing this usage as it will help to reduce costs even further. ”

“Clearly, the advice is to not become complacent. By all means plan from the start to deliver sustainably, but also be prepared to embrace other opportunities to deliver sustainable solutions as the project progresses. In order to ensure this happens, education and effective communications are key.

“Sustainability requirements must be embedded into existing systems and processes but, more importantly, people need to receive regular communication. If people don’t know what sustainability is, then how will they know if you do not communicate with them?”

This is an area where Balfour Beatty Rail has had some success. Its annual employee survey last year revealed that 87% of employees said they had a ‘good understanding’ of sustainability, 81% knew there were things they could do in their role to contribute to sustainability and 75% knew they contribute to sustainability in their personal lives.

“What we found is that there is actually a lot of sustainability in action happening across the business, but that often we simply do not recognise it.” Sam commented. “I am amazed at the amount of good practice that is actually taking place already. By sharing best practice examples, we can help people to recognise that what they are doing is already sustainability in practice and that they need to consider more than just direct costs.

“Sharing progress against targets is also important as people want to know what impact their actions have made,” Sam continued. “Lack of feedback tends to switch people off. Capturing and managing sustainability performance data will be a major challenge for Network Rail in the future. If data is seen to be going into a ‘black hole’, with no feedback on performance or consequences, then it will not drive the required change.”

The challenges ahead

From Balfour Beatty Rail’s point of view, taking a sustainability approach to business is ‘simply the right thing to do’. As Sam Brewitt said, “We are on a journey to ensure that sustainability is truly embedded into everything we do and the decisions we make on a daily basis. Perhaps when this is achieved my role as sustainability manager will not even exist – I had better start looking for an alternative career!”

The rail industry has been set the challenge to increase capacity, improve reliability, whilst reducing cost and ensuring that everyone gets home safe every day. These are often competing priorities that make decision-making difficult. However, what is important is that Network Rail is making great strides by putting ‘sustainability at the heart of everything we do’. The launch of its Sustainable Development Strategy provides contractors and the wider industry with clarity on its expectations. With the addition of clear targets, this will enable a more consistent approach allowing industry, along with the wider community and environment, to start to reap the benefits.


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