The UK’s railways are the oldest in the world and played a large part in helping us to become the world’s first industrialised country. In 1830, George Stephenson built the first steam-powered inter-city railway line between Liverpool and Manchester and between 1830 and 1880, transport in this country became transformed by the creation of a huge network. Throughout the remainder of the 19th-century, railways continued to replace canals as the major method of transport for both passengers and freight.
The railways brought major changes to industry, politics and society. People could travel more, and MPs and political movements, like the Chartists, could move from constituencies more easily. And of course, the railways became a major employer.
In the 1940s, steam locomotives began to be replaced by diesel-electric trains – a transition that has only been completed in the last 20 years or so following a surge in railway usage caused by road congestion and increasing fuel costs. Today, railways play a pivotal role in our transport system. They are a fast, safe and effective way of moving passengers and freight from one part of the country to the other as well as internationally. Last year, in spite of the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, 703 million rail journeys were made.
How Have The Railways Impacted Our Environment?
Whilst there can be no doubt that railways have played a vital role in the economic prosperity of the nation and are in fact the greenest form of public transport it has, unfortunately, also it has been at some cost to our environment.
The most common environmental complaints about the railways are the noise, the vibrations, and the amount of carbon emissions they produce which pollute the air, soil, water and cause damage to living organisms. The main cause of the noise and vibrations comes from freight and high-speed trains, whilst emissions from diesel exhaust and dust from the tracks pollute the air. Fuel combustion, track abrasion and freight leakages cause the most soil and plant contamination, because their emissions are neither chemically, or biologically degraded. Similarly, heavy metals found in the water bordering the tracks are often caused by leakages from petroleum products carried on the system.
Having said that, there can be no doubt that railways are still the most environmentally friendly means of transport. They produce 80% less gas emissions than cars and in 2019, they produced less than 2% of the country’s domestic emissions whilst accounting for 9% of passenger miles travelled across the nation.
The recently announced Great British Railways, a new authority responsible for track, train and stations, has been tasked, amongst other things, with improving the environmental impact of the system. It has been asked to ensure that our railway network is green and is able to adapt to climate change.
With this in mind, low-carbon technologies to reduce damaging emissions will now be heavily pursued whilst innovations, like battery and hydrogen trains, will be introduced in this decade to replace existing diesel trains. Electrification of the tracks will be aggressively ramped up to allow electric rail freight to run on more routes and air-quality monitors will be installed on stations throughout the system.
The low carbon emission strategy pursued over the past years is no longer viable. The Government has legally committed the country to a net-zero carbon gas emissions policy by 2050 and environmental sustainability is now at the core of its operations.
How Will The New Railways Help Reduce The Impact On The Environment?
The new railway system will focus on four key areas to ensure that it will have a positive impact on both the environment and society.
The first will be to ensure that the railway is carbon neutral by 2050. In Scotland, the aim is to achieve this five years earlier. The air will therefore be much purer for everyone – passengers, staff and people living in communities near to the tracks.
The second is reducing the impact of climate change on the system and to make it more resilient to changing weather conditions. Hopefully, the days when snow on the tracks or the sun causing the tracks to disfigure delayed our journeys will be a thing of the past.
The third is to protect all wildlife surrounding the tracks and their stations. The aim is to actively encourage biodiversity across the board by 2035.
Lastly, the aim is to reduce waste and recycle more. Plastic coffee cups and plastic cutlery now used on stations will be banished. Only sustainable materials will be used as they last longer, don’t pollute the air and can easily be recycled.
Contact RWB Group UK for Rail Services
The decarbonisation challenge faced by the new Great British Railways and its contractors is without question significant. RWB Group UK are committed to reducing the impact that the rail industry has on the environment and we provide a comprehensive range of essential rail services. We have extensive track and maintenance experience and we will continue to carry out environmental site investigations to help this new public body achieve its objectives.