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Late rail sector signals plans to make up lost time on sustainability

Sustainable Net Zero Transport
Clients are requiring suppliers to provide sustainability plans for future contracts

“Companies need to act now to be able to adapt to these changes
and secure future contracts.”

(Network Rail)

By Cerys Turner

WHILE RAILWAYS ARE FREQUENTLY lauded as a low carbon alternative to road transport, aviation and shipping, the sector is often criticised for a glacial pace of change. In the UK, it has certainly not been the shiniest example of sustainability planning. However, major projects like HS2 and CrossRail have generated substantial learning. At its Rail Live exhibition this month, the sector signalled all change. 

As tradeshows fight for their livelihoods under Covid-19 lock and key, the rail supply chain received an oxygen boost through its annual outdoors expo. Events like these are great opportunities for companies like us to understand first-hand how markets are addressing looming risk. They generate valuable insights that we can share with our clients when we are helping them futureproof their enterprises.  

Under increasing pressure from government, customers, investors and extreme weather, sustainability is one business priority that needs to be a standing item on the agenda of any company board. The goal of net zero carbon by 2050 requires a fundamental strategic shift of the economy and mandatory reporting is trickling down the value chain. Do companies see it purely as an exercise in historic accounting? How well do they appreciate the strategic opportunity for growth through people, innovation and sales? 

Facing new threats

The 5,000 visitors at Rail Live, eager to network and reconnect after 15 months of video calls, faced new threats – even under the strictest health & safety precautions, Covid tested, masked and keeping their distance. As if to remind everyone of the endangered elephant in the room, meteorologists warned of the year’s hottest and wettest weather. Was Europe’s largest outdoor rail exhibition facing its own extreme weather event? Our creative team – Gerard, Matt, Cerys, Hilla and Billy – imagined a mini-Glastonbury for engineers, and planned appropriately: suncream, waterproofs under our new hi-vis vests, and walking boots fit for yomping through mud. 

We planned to catch the special train laid on from Worcester down the London line, experiencing the UK’s first battery powered train. It nearly had to be suspended, following pressure on its train fleet caused by the widely-reported cracking problem in the Hitachi IET trains, but Vivarail, Network Rail and Transport for Wales stepped in and we changed seamlessly at Honeywell to a temporary platform to Quinton Rail Technology Centre (QRTC) at Long Marston. 

The Class 230 battery-diesel hybrid brought us with more of a whirr and a glide than a chug, into the approach to a private QRTC platform serving Rail Live. To the south lay the gentle green slopes of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A small woodland of cherry-pickers marked the venue where buzzards and skylarks keep watch overhead. The vast site of fields, gravel roads and oxidised rail tracks occupy 55 hectares (135 acres) – so it’s in fact only an eighth the size of Glastonbury. We stood out in our sky blue hi-vis vests against a sea of orange and yellow.  

Rail’s new sustainability strategist George Davies helping us futureproof our clients. Image: Contented

The policy’s in place

One of the main talking points at the event this year was the Great British Railways white paper, released by UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Keith Williams, the former British Airways CEO. It’s ironic that Williams, the airport executive who dedicated 20 years to competing against trains, has led what the government claims is the most significant review of rail since privatisation. The policy paper details the upcoming revolution of the rail industry, integrating the railway into a new public body and replacing franchising with Passenger Service Contracts. It also signals expanded electrification of the network.

Decarbonisation of the railway – reducing embedded and emitted carbon dioxide – has already become a national discussion topic. In Spring 2020, the government released a plan to ensure the transport industry reaches net zero emissions by 2050. What is different in this year’s paper is that Williams and Shapps are signposting to rail a strategy for wider sustainability, covering not only environmental but also social impact across the whole supply chain. 

Although such a plan doesn’t yet exist, Great British Railways may be a step towards one. George Davies, the first Director of Sustainability at RSSB, the Rail Safety and Standards Board, said in his Rail Live address that it answers the need for “communication and cooperation” to unify what has become a fragmented industry. Experts argue that carbon accounting is only a step to futureproof organisations and the coming years will reveal how quickly the rail industry can move onto a more holistic, firmer footing.

Snapping new friends. Image: Contented

Building on sector learning

Credentials of the sector have taken a knock. What some once dreamed would be the world’s most sustainable railway, HS2 became one of its most expensive. Its environmental credentials have been undermined by embedded carbon in materials and construction, and the destruction of previously protected wildlife and forest. In mitigation, HS2 undertook the largest ever survey of British wildlife and plans to create a 127-hectare biodiversity hotspot to assist carbon reduction, while Birmingham Curzon Street station operates on net zero emissions.

Emma Head, the highspeed railway system’s Safety and Assurance Director, recognises the difficulties. While she strikes a note of overwhelming optimism, she admits that the amount of carbon required to go into building HS2 will “always be a challenge”. The company plans to cut carbon by 50% on Phase One, and has already identified opportunities for nearly half of this.

Network Rail is also upping its ambition, introducing Science Based Targets (SBTs), considered best practice in sustainability reporting.  Jamie Shaw, Low Emission Strategy Lead at Network Rail, and Roger Maybury, Network Rail’s Director of Supplier Management, highlighted their goal for 75% of suppliers to set SBTs by 2025, providing the sector with a clear route to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet less than one in five SMEs has committed thus far.

The audience heard that the company is not yet penalising suppliers who haven’t set SBTs. Rather, its approach is to encourage suppliers to commit. But it will offer incentives such as only working with those who have a carbon reduction plan in place. The speakers suggested the stakes will soon be raised: “Companies need to act now to be able to adapt to these changes and secure future contracts.” 

Purchase and disposal of recycled hi-vis suits are just one example of sustainable business practices.  Image: Contented

Incentivising suppliers

The Long Marston site that hosted Rail Live has just been acquired by Porterbrook — management will transfer by the end of Q2, 2021, under a 15-year lease – and the rolling stock owner’s existing partners, Chrysalis and the University of Birmingham, will remain on site. Over time, they expect to be joined by other businesses who share an ambition to transform it into a leading centre for the benefit of railways customers, suppliers and the local community. It’s a promising opportunity for the sector to be led by a partnership that brought the country its first hydrogen-powered train, HydroFLEX, facilitating collaboration and responsible innovation. As if to signal its commitment to sustainability, the company has announced that the latest version of the HydroFLEX will attend the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26, in Glasgow this November. 

“Why are we talking about climate change? My daughter studies that,” one manufacturing business owner recently asked us — as if as we had brought up the subject of French verb-endings. “What does that have to do with business?” 

The news is welcome that the rail sector is at last planning strategically to get back on a sustainable track for 2050.  What’s critical is that business leaders frame this as a strategic change programme — not merely a historic carbon accounting exercise, but one that shifts the mindset of the organisation.  Mindsets inform how teams perceive situations, what they pay attention to, how they make sense of them, and ultimately, how they decide to act. 

Any plan for carbon reduction needs at its heart a programme that recognises a dynamic relationship with wider systems and delights in the other. It’s this difference that faciliates innovation and a sense of responsibility. 

Talk to our team about how Contented can help futureproof your company and position yourself as a thought-leader and responsible supplier of choice.

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