In contrast to the days in which our railways were built, engineers and designers are now much more concerned about the sustainability of their work. How many lorry-loads of supplies come into a site, and how many loads of waste leave? How much fuel is used, and carbon released? What happens to that waste? How much carbon is released making the concrete that will be used? What about the trains themselves? And their servicing? And replacement? And what about the people, their safety and welfare?

So many questions and, sometimes, not enough answers.

Which is why the rail industry’s sustainability experts gathered at the first Rail Sustainability Summit, held in London during September. There were train operators, infrastructure owners, civil engineering contractors, consultants and designers – all exchanging ideas and hearing about best practice in the industry.

And the main message that people took away? Not to be afraid of sustainability, and that getting involved can actually reduce costs.

How does it fit?

Chris Leech of Business in the Community set the stage by de-mystifying sustainability. It was he who first referred to sustainable businesses being profitable ones by commenting that, in the recent economic downturn, it was the sustainable companies that had, in general, fared better.

Peter Wilkinson, managing director of passenger services at the DfT, commented that “those companies which are successful do not necessarily work just from the balance sheet”. While admitting that running a modern railway is an “incredibly difficult thing to do”, he said that operators must keep up with technology in other sectors. Lighter trains use less energy, and also store energy for reuse so reducing their total requirement.

And it’s not just the trains. Building infrastructure is energy sensitive, and the railway industry is the world’s largest user of copper. Planned transport integration will be key as people live longer and want to remain mobile.

Scotland’s approach, as detailed by Gordon Macleod of Transport Scotland, differs in detail but has the same core message – sustainability is now embedded in the railway franchising process.

Contractors have their part to play. Mike Hewitt, from telecommunications installer AD Comms, revealed that 4% of the nation’s electricity output now goes to run data centres! This requires everyone to work more efficiently and have sustainability as an attitude, as the savings can be enormous.

Making it work

Andrew English, managing director of Skanska’s utilities business and formerly commercial director of rail, told the audience it was all about being environmentally smart. Resources are scarce – another common theme of the day – and managing them should be on every company’s agenda NOW.

On one project, they had switched from a cost- based to a carbon-based analysis, and found that the end result was a reduction in cost as well, proving that a sustainable solution was often an economic solution.



Gareth Williams of Northern Rail outlined a typical train operator’s approach. His company has an environmental scorecard and everything is judged against that, even saying that, if targets are missed, then no bonuses are paid out. Every business unit knows how it is performing on energy and sustainability – right down to every individual station.

During the lunch break, delegates visited the sponsors’ displays and learnt from PHS Besafe how laundering good-quality PPE up to 50 times was not only more sustainable but also cheaper than using one-shot clothing which then had to be sent to landfill.

Jansen Legioblock wasn’t there to sell concrete block walls (though no doubt they would be happy to), but to discuss how they could take waste aggregates and concrete from sites and use them in its products, recycling the materials and sometimes even returning them to the same project.

Engaging people

The afternoon continued with more fascinating talks. Cathy Myatt of Crossrail spoke of Key Sustainable Initiatives (KSIs), of the need to have clarity of vision and strong governance and leadership, and of the importance of bringing apprentices along for the ride.

Cal Bailey told everyone that we live in a beautiful world, that transport networks give people access to that wonderful world, and that business drivers must be not just profitability but responsibility as well. Being known as a responsible business “encourages customers to put business our way” – a policy that NG Bailey is following in its involvement in the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street.

Returning to the subject of apprentices, Cal challenged the industry to include in every major contract the requirement that one new apprentice must be taken on and retained for a full four years for every £1 million of the contract value – a challenge that was much discussed at the next break.

Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor for IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, asked: “Is sustainability an option or a necessity?” Returning to the theme that companies with long-term success have a purpose beyond profit, he included in his list of ‘sustainability killers’ short termism, a lack of knowledge and skills, and relying on ‘experts’.

Supporting growth

Professor Roger Venables of CEEQUAL outlined the organisation’s weighting and scoring of the sustainability built into project schemes, and took the opportunity to present an Award to a team from Crossrail for its achievements.

Costain’s Andy Dixon had a simple message. Sustainability – can we afford it? Can we afford not to? He certainly thought that the answer to both questions was obvious and inescapable.

Finally, RSSB’s Anthony Perrett told the audience that major businesses in the utilities sector were saving 4-6% a year by being sustainable. Rail achieves only 1-2% (£500 million for Network Rail over five years), so there is a lot more work still to do.

In thanking the speakers, Network Rail sustainability lead Tertius Beneke returned to the premise that a sustainable business is a profitable business, and sent the audience on its way determined to start doing better before next year’s Rail Sustainability Summit.