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Sustainable Rail Blueprint sets bold ambition, but can it deliver?

In a groundbreaking move towards a greener future, the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) has released the eagerly awaited Sustainable Rail Blueprint. As the independent safety, standards, and research body for Great Britain’s rail network, the RSSB has long been dedicated to improving safety, efficiency, and sustainability within the industry.

The Sustainable Rail Blueprint marks a significant milestone as the railway's first unified framework for realising sustainable rail. This comprehensive plan provides a holistic, industry-wide view, outlining goals and strategic aims across 11 rail topics organised under three themes: Emissions, Natural Environment, and Social Sustainability.

Co-created with input from various industry stakeholders, including passenger and freight operators, rolling stock owners, regulators, and suppliers, The Blueprint emphasises the importance of industry-led initiatives in driving sustainable change. It recognises the need for collective responsibility, urging stakeholders not to solely rely on government bodies for necessary investments.

The environmental benefits of rail travel are well-established, with studies showing that rail emits three to five times fewer carbon emissions than driving, and a single freight train can remove more than 70 heavy goods vehicles from roads.

However, the Sustainable Rail Blueprint highlights that sustainable rail goes beyond environmental considerations, offering long-term benefits for the UK economy and contributing to the government's levelling up agenda.

Investment in sustainable rail infrastructure is crucial for realising the goals outlined in The Blueprint. While there are costs associated with implementation, including capital expenditure and training, many of these costs will be incurred regardless due to aging infrastructure. The Blueprint recommends investments in new or upgraded infrastructure to improve sustainability performance, such as electrification to reduce emissions and retrofitting rolling stock with equipment to improve air quality.

Looking ahead, the rail industry acknowledges the urgency of taking concrete steps to turn The Sustainable Rail Blueprint into actionable change. To this end, Deloitte’s analysis of the strategic document has identified six key recommendations for moving forward:

  1. Broad endorsement: The Blueprint requires endorsement from non-railway entities such as local councils and private businesses to realise its full potential and benefits.
  2. Costed Scenarios: Providing fully costed scenarios against a sensible counterfactual will dispel perceptions of The Blueprint being a net cost, similar to National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios.
  3. Long-term Planning: Developing an integrated milestone plan aligned with short- and long-term goals and ongoing reform agendas is essential for successful embedding of The Blueprint.
  4. Data-driven Decisions: Accurate and trustworthy data based on an agreed framework such as the RSSB’s proposed Sustainable Rail Data Framework is crucial for evidence-based decision-making.
  5. Bold Innovation: The industry must come together to embrace bold and innovative approaches to address the challenges outlined in The Blueprint.
  6. Cultural Shift: A cultural shift towards prioritising environmental and social sustainability across all aspects of the railway is vital for impactful change.

As the rail industry embraces The Sustainable Rail Blueprint, it sets its sights on a future where sustainability is not just a goal but a reality. With the right collaborative efforts and strategic investments, the vision of a greener, more sustainable railway system is within reach.

Meet the authors

Mary Hewitt

Partner

Mary is a consulting partner within Deloitte UK’s Strategic Transformation team and has extensive international experience in transport and power generation. With over twenty years of experience, both in consulting and in industry, she has a proven track record of delivering strategic transformation as well as first-hand operational experience. She is an experienced board member within highly political or regulated environments, having sat on the board of over ten organisations.

Hannah Winter

Senior Consultant

Hannah is a Senior Consultant within Deloitte's Public Sector division, with extensive experience in large scale and complex programmes focusing on digital transformation and process design in the rail industry.