Covid versus carbon versus cost

Since March last year, the outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in a considerable and prolonged impact on our day-to-day lives. The pandemic has forced us to rapidly change the way in which we work, interact with others, and overhauled how we perform common tasks such as shopping or exercising. But what about the impacts that have yet to come to fruition?

In the last decade, there has been increased messaging around the need for a greener planet and maintaining our resources, however no tangible steps made in how we could make that a reality. Covid turned this on its head. One of the positive elements to emerge from the pandemic is the increased focus on protecting our environment and realising how we can live our lives in a greener, more sustainable way, fit for the future.

Covid and transport

With a ban on non-essential travel across the globe, there has been an obvious positive impact in the reduction of the amount of carbon emissions produced. However, as normal life slowly and carefully comes back to life, both short and long-haul travel will once again become a habitual part of our lives. Whilst it may take some time to return to a level anywhere near pre-Covid, the increase in travel, both domestic and international, will create an inevitable impact on our environment.

With regards to the rail industry, an essential component of both commuter and leisure travel, we need to take this opportunity to ensure that the changes and advances made, and the lessons learned about sustainability this past year, are taken forward and built upon as we work together to create a greener railway.

Consequentially we have seen how digital technology has further embedded itself throughout the workplace globally, not just within the transport industry. The rail industry has an incredible opportunity, as the leader in sustainable public transport, to showcase how innovation and technology has further contributed to the reduction of our carbon footprint during the pandemic and capitalise on making improvements, supporting the new way in which we work and live going forward.

The cost of Covid

The UK rail industry has taken a financial hit of several billions due to the pandemic, and as our Government, TOCs, FOCs and the myriad of third-party suppliers work to get back to an operating ‘normal’, it will be imperative to prioritise where future spend will be focused.

With an obvious drive to attract passengers back to travelling by rail, the industry cannot afford to lose sight of the innovative and sustainable solutions that have been developed and employed successfully over the last 12 months. Digital solutions have made huge contributions to industry performance and its carbon footprint, and the industry needs to continue to invest in these long-term solutions, rather than focus financial spend on marketing tactics to drive footfall onto trains.

The reclamation of the cost of Covid to the rail industry should not be realised in the reduction in investment in innovation and technology but should harness the return on investment the solutions provide and will continue to deliver for decades to come.

3Squared and sustainability

Our commitment to sustainability and how we can have a real impact on the industry achieving its goal of a zero-carbon railway, is something we are incredibly proud of. In simple terms, by producing solutions that improve the way the railway performs, we are helping to create an efficient, safe, environmentally friendly, and desirable choice of public transport.

Innovation and digitisation are both an integral part of improving the rail industry’s environmental impact. We have worked hard over the years to demonstrate how our solutions can have a real impact on how the railway operates and the positive contributions they can make to a greener railway, which is never more evident than in the last 12 months.

Our RailSmart suite of software tools showcase how digitisation and technological solutions, when developed hand in hand with our rail industry clients, can help meet both current and future challenges. Let us take one of the few positive opportunities the pandemic has offered us, and ensure we continue to commit to sustainable solutions for the rail industry.

Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail

In May, the Department for Transport released a plan to transform the railways in Great Britain, titled ‘Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail’. The plan fully reflects the independent recommendations of Keith Williams, who has worked closely with the government since 2018 to provide analysis and insights that shape strategies and decision making.

Williams identified the serious threats facing the railways long before Covid struck. The newly released plan calls for a 30-year strategy that aims to identify the existing threats in a post-pandemic age and define the steps the industry needs to take to navigate the future.

The UK rail network is complex, comprised of numerous bodies with different incentives and goals. No single organisation is accountable for a holistic view, and this is something the Williams-Shapps plan seeks to overcome. The plan identifies ten key outcomes that the rail industry needs to place significant focus on, over the course of the next few years:

  1. Modern passenger experiences
  2. A retail revolution
  3. New ways of working with the private sector
  4. Economic recovery and financial sustainable railways
  5. Greater control for local people and places
  6. Cleaner, greener railways
  7. Bold, new opportunities for rail freight
  8. Increased speed of delivery and efficient enhancements
  9. Skilled, innovative workforce
  10. A simpler industry structure

So how can we make this a reality? A range of tactics have been set in place, which aim to make the network greener, sustainable and more efficient, in keeping with modern advances in technology. These targets include:

  • Achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions from trains by 2050
  • Remove all diesel-only trains from the rail network by 2040
  • Commit to a sustainable, deliverable programme of electrification that delivers a higher performing, net zero railway
  • Air quality targets will be set for all parts of the railway that the public can access in 2022, with the ambition of meeting those targets by the end of 2030
  • The rail industry will be required to develop air quality improvement plans for all stations identified as having poor air quality
  • Network Rail will achieve net zero biodiversity by 2024 and biodiversity net gain by 2035
  • 100% of Network Rail’s cars and vans will be zero emission vehicles by 2027
  • Zero waste from railway activities and passengers will go to landfill by 2025, and increasingly challenging recycling targets will continue to be set across all areas of the railway
  • Targets will be set for renewable energy generation and use at stations

The Department for Transport’s ‘Decarbonising Transport’ report further enhances the above, defining a set of strategic priorities which aim to revolutionise the network in a post-Covid world. Specific focus is placed on decarbonisation and how we can transport goods sustainably across the network. The report states that, “we will decarbonise our freight system” and “increasing the amount of freight will shift from road and air to more sustainable modes, with digital solutions and data optimising efficiency.”

Cited as ‘simplification’ rather than ‘renationalisation’, overall, the ambitious plan and its tactics sets out a positive and exciting framework, where technology and innovation can thrive and support the delivery of the digital railway and the environment around it. We look forward to playing a key role in the delivery of this plan, and exploring the innovative ways the network can transform, going forward.

Looking ahead

When Covid is finally a thing of the past, we need to take both individual and collective action as an industry for the good of our planet, with an intelligent and considered approach to travel. Companies such as ours have demonstrated the benefits of a focus on digital technology solutions that not only make the railway safer and more efficient but have significant benefits to the environmental impact of the industry.

If the industry can embrace the changes it has made throughout the pandemic and build on the positives, such as the shift from road to rail freight to decarbonisation, we can really use the last year as a platform for the future and reap the long-term benefits for our planet.