As humans, we’re becoming more and more aware of the impact we have on the environment, and while travel hasn’t been on the agenda much this year, the environment has still been in the news. The way we move around our planet has changed a lot in recent decades, but train travel remains popular and could be the key to more sustainable travel in the future.
Train travel is not without its impact on the environment, but other than walking and cycling, it’s one of the least detrimental modes of transport you can choose. So what are the ways in which we’ve already made train travel sustainable, and what can we look forward to in the future?
Things which make train travel more sustainable
In comparison with other forms of transport – including cars and air travel – travelling by train is already far more environmentally friendly. In fact, of Europe’s CO2 emissions caused by transport in 2014, railways produced just 1.6%, while cars produced 73.4% and aviation produced 12.6%.
How exactly is train travel already better? Here are just a few of the ways:
- Regenerative braking – Many trains these days use regenerative braking, which helps to recover energy when the vehicle is coming to a halt. This is more useful for trains which make regular stops, but even on larger, longer trains, it can still be used to recoup some of the energy expended.
- Electric power – With almost 70% of the UK’s rail fleet running on electricity, train travel no longer produces the same air pollutants it once did. Electricity still needs to be generated to keep trains moving, but there is less sulphur and carbon monoxide being produced as they travel around.
- Less space – With every new portion of track built, it might seem like land taken up by transport, but rail travel is a far more efficient use of land than roads, taking up to three times less space per unit transported.
- Less noise pollution – We might think of trains as being loud when we stand near them, but they actually cause less noise pollution than roads. Since trains pass by fewer times than a constant stream of cars, it’s actually quieter overall.
The future of sustainable trains
Despite everything which has gone into making rail travel more sustainable, there is still work to be done. The following are just some of the innovations and industry shifts which could help to make travelling by train more environmentally friendly:
- Integrate with other transport modes – By integrating with other modes of transport, such as bus and tram schemes, travelling from A to B without using a car becomes much simpler. It doesn’t have to be high-tech to make an impact; the principle of fewer cars on the road and more joined-up transport links – which makes things convenient for people – is one which could hugely benefit sustainability.
- Track improvements – Constant maintenance and delays to trains means more carbon is expended in keeping railways going. With track improvements – such as mechatronic switches, eliminating unreliable track switching – we could reduce the breakdowns and the carbon footprint produced by maintenance and replacement rail services.
- Hydrail propulsions – Using hydrogen as the fuel to propel trains consumes far less energy and is already being invested in by Japan and in the US. It’s thought that hydrail could save over 50% in energy consumption over traditional diesel.
- Electricity production – Since most of the UK’s rail network uses electricity, more sustainable sources of energy creation are always a welcome move. The more technology advances in solar and wind power, the more sustainable train travel becomes overall.
As one of the most sustainable forms of transport already, the future only looks more exciting for rail with the right investment.
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