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GOOD NEWS ABOUT TRAINS - All Aboard for Greener Transport!

Alstom's iLint Coradia is powered by Hydrogen Fuel Cells. When the hydrogen is made with renewable energy (see below), they are Zero Emission transport. Expect to see a lot more of them around Europe in the near future

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Rail is already the greenest mode of travel after bicycles, even more so if electric and run on renewable energy. For example, 100 tonnes of freight going 1000 Kms by train will produce 100 tonnes (75%) less CO2 than trucks travelling over the same distance. If it's so good I hear you ask, why isn't everything going by train? The European Union has been asking itself the same question. In 2006 it established the European Railway Agency to encourage rail transport and in 2011 it called for 30% of road freight to be carried by trains by 2030 and 50% by 2050. Despite a number of improvements, 75% of freight still went by road in 2018 and rail's share had actually fallen slightly to 17%. Rail travel is still only used by 8% of travellers and some 126 out of 365 former lined have been closed.  Some of the reasons for this are listed below, along with some possible solutions. Most of the following information comes from the Transport and Environment website. This is the group made up of 63 European environmental groups plus one each from Russia and the Ukraine as mentioned in the previous post.

Challenges and solutions

  •  Road transport is currently faster and more flexible
This is because road transport can go door -to -door as needed and doesn’t need to be scheduled in advance. The door -to -door aspect could be overcome with road freight agencies dealing with first or last mile only. Data sharing and collaboration rather than competition between agencies could greatly facilitate the process and reduce costs as would “Uberisation” of the sector.

  • Rail is often more expensive
In the EU there is still a surcharge on most lines for each kilometre travelled, whereas road freight is partially subsidised through diesel tax rebates. Truck drivers are often paid less depending on their country of origin. The Transport and Environment Group wants to change that by calling for tolls on road freight as it passes through various countries and for tachometers to be installed in heavy vehicles so that drivers will be paid the same amount for the same distance, regardless of where they are based. Eight countries have now introduced cross border tolls for road freight and Switzerland, which has one of the biggest rail freight sectors in the EU – 38% and 66% in the trans Alpine sector, has introduced driving bans and tolls on Road Freight which are used to subsidise its rail operations.
  •  Road Freight has lower capital costs
However, rail offers other benefits such as quieter, cleaner, safer transport not to mention enabling countries to better meet their emissions targets. It is already more cost effective for transporting large quantities of bulky goods such as coal, gas and petroleum over long distances.
  • Lack of interoperability
In Europe where there are extensive pre -existing rail networks, which have evolved independently they are often incompatible. For instance, some have different track gauges (as Australia does between states), others have different voltages, different pantograph designs, standards and signalling, all of which slow cross border services down. Unlike the airline industry there isn’t even a common language between them, so a train travelling from say, Holland to Italy, must either have a driver who speaks four languages or must change drivers along the way.

Because 50% of Europe's freight goes across borders, the European Union has established 11 rail freight corridors (RFCs) to facilitate cross border movements. It has also opened up rail travel to greater competition. The Green Corridors Program is an EU initiative which began as a trial in Sweden in 2010 to showcase efficient transport solutions which integrated road, rail and shipping as well as taking into account economic, social and environmental aspects. It is now being extended across the Baltic states and the EU. Railway authorities and lobby groups are calling for more harmonisation, more line electrification,  increased capacity for longer trains and the installation of a centralised traffic system. Through such initiatives it hopes to reduce lead times by 50%, increase punctuality by 95% and capacity by 50%. It also expects freight costs to fall by 25%. 


However, according to Lucy Gilliam, T & E's Aviation and Shipping campaigner, commenting on the EU's Year of Rail this year, it isn't always about expensive new infrastructure. Much could be achieved by having easier booking systems and modern IT solutions. "Upgrading commuter rail lines and deploying 21st Century IT technology may not be as sexy as new high speed lines, but they do provide better value for the millions of Europeans who rely on rail every day." See McKinsey and Comapany's October report for more simple ways to increase rail traffic.

  • Cultural change

New technology, automation and digitisation could also speed things up. Side loading trucks for example, would reduce the amount of time spent loading and unloading but automation is being resisted by unions. The European rail sector currently employs 90,000 people.  However, the fact that rail freight is likely to increase significantly in the next decade or so, means that fears about job losses may not materialise. With demand for coal, gas and petroleum products likely to diminish in future, job loss and mass unemployment are more likely if the sector fails to adapt to customer demands and seek more markets. Less parochialism and a wider concern for the EU (and the world) as a whole may also help. At present countries are often willing to pay for upgrades in their own jurisdiction, but are less willing to contribute to the greater good. 

As far as transparency goes, Transport and Environment suggests that simple measures such as adding GPS trackers to freight, digitisation and more collaboration between countries and the various actors, plus better communication with end users would also encourage greater uptake.

  • Competing against airlines for passenger transport

Air travel produces around 184 million tonnes of CO2 in Europe (4.2% of the total) with intra EU flights accounting for one third of this. Yet as far as passenger transport goes, rail travel produces an average of 77 times less CO2 over distances under 250 Km. For this reason, many European countries are trying to discourage short haul flights in favour of rail or opting for 'polluter pays' principles.

With 2021 being the Year of Rail, France recently announced that it would ban flights between cities where rail connections are available that take less than two and a half hours. 

Austria has put a 30 tax on flights under 217 km and banned flights which can be completed by train in under 3 hours.

The Netherlands has tried to impose similar bans since 2013. However, a 2019 ban on flights to Brussels from Amsterdam was found to be illegal under the EU’s freedom of movement rules.

 Future Trends

In the USA where there is a 40% reliance on rail for freight, economies of scale are possible both through standardisation of lines and through having much longer trains. US trains are allowed to be 3 Km long whereas the maximum in the EU is 1 Km. This represents a saving of over 1/3 of the cost. The effects are self  re -enforcing. Cheaper rail means more companies will use it and greater volume means cheaper and or more frequent service. While most US trains still run on diesel which not only produces high emissions but is subject to price volatility according to the price of oil, both the USA (see below) and several European countries are trialling battery -electric trains including Stadler (Swiss), Siemens and Alstom (both German).  

Stadler already has orders for 99 of its trains which run on both batteries and overhead wires. Alstom's battery electric is ideally suited to places which do not have electrified overhead wires. The Bombadier Company's Talent 3 developed in conjunction with several partners and support from the German government, was the first battery powered train to go into passenger service in 2018. Thirty -two such trains have now been ordered for the Tyrol region between Austria and Italy.  Siemen's 31 battery electric trains which will be operating on the East Brandenburg network from 2024, will save 4.4 million litres of fuel, produce zero emissions depending on the electricity mix and reduce regional CO2 emissions by 11,500 tonnes.

In California, BNSF and and WABTEC have just launched the pilot program of their battery electric train.


Alstom (see above) also has hydrogen fuel cell trains operating in Sweden, Germany and France and has orders for 400 more. Denmark has just ordered 100 of them which are scheduled to begin service in 2024. When run on ‘green hydrogen’ – i.e. that made from renewable energy, such trains will have zero carbon emissions. Fortunately Australia, Namibia and India are leading the charge to produce hydrogen from renewable energy. For more information on how it works see the video in this article by the ABC.

At this stage hydrogen is still more expensive than fossil fuels and the infrastructure for it is still largely absent – even for long distance trucks, but this will become even more important for other forms of transport such as shipping and aviation and also for use in energy intensive industries. Still, we are witnessing the birth of a new industrial revolution - a green one, where new players and coalitions are emerging and with fortunes to be made by those who succeed. This is just as well because we are in a race against time. 

Next: Good News in Shipping and Aviation, subject to some diversions without notice!