Circular Economy and Railway: materials and parts reused to promote sustainability

The main pillar on which the Circular Economy is based is ‘the four R’s: reduce, reuse, repair and recycle. The objective? To establish a circular cycle that avoids the waste of natural resources. With this pillar in the background, the commitment of the circular economy is to reuse materials when their useful life is exhausted, carrying out this recovery process in the most environmentally friendly way.

This philosophy in favour of caring for the environment has also come to the railway sector to stay. Materials, parts and even the use of surplus energy are some of the initiatives that are carried out in this regard.

Reused materials for railway sleepers

But not only train materials and products serve to give them another use, but certain products can be reused for the manufacture of railway elements. For example, railway sleepers through the use of tyre powder. An Italian company manufactures this type of sleepers 100% sustainable and manufactured with a mixture of 50% rubber from out of use tyres and 50% recycled plastic. For each kilometre of sleeper, up to 35 tons of tyres are reused, the equivalent of the rubber of 5,845 out of use tyres, so each kilometre of track involves an environmental saving of practically 192,000 Kg of CO2, 61,300 litres of oil and 5,130,000 litres of water.

Reusable materials and parts

Throughout the two years of work of the Reuse Project, participants identified a series of products that have been made with used and recycled materials from different parts of the trains. In this regard, the report highlighted, among others: beach bags made with old train seat covers, ping-pong and football tables made with floors, stylish speakers made of broadcast speakers, tables made with the train boarding steps and furniture made of the train floors, desks made with the ceiling panels, seats and chess table made with floors and stirrups, planters made of dustbins or notepads, timesheets and lamps made of yellow travel information panels.

Reuse of surplus energy

In August of last year, the Railway Infrastructure Manager, Adif, received aid valued at 1.02 million euros from the Institute for Energy Diversification and Saving (IDAE), originating in the Energy Efficiency National Fund (EENF), for five reversible substation projects. With this economic boost, Adif has implemented a system to recover the energy from the regenerative braking of trains. The objective of the projects is to prevent the surplus energy generated by braking from being wasted, and to help its recovery so that it can be returned to the high-voltage electricity grid. This recovery has different advantages: energy savings, economic savings, and reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, thus contributing to the fight against climate change.

Another example in this regard is the ‘Ferrolineras’ project, also by the Railway Infrastructure Manager. It is a system that uses the direct and alternating current railway networks to power the recharging points of electric vehicles, which will use the kinetic energy generated by the trains when braking and that would otherwise be wasted.

Metro de Madrid also works along the same lines. Also recovering the energy from the braking system of the convoys, the so-called reversible cells have been launched, electrical equipment that allows this braking energy to be reused and employed in auxiliary services of the stations or other types of facilities. Other uses include vending machines, fans, or escalators.

Europe’s Rail (EU-Rail)

Among the innovation and research programmes within the railway sector stands out Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking, the new European partnership for railway research and innovation established within the framework of Horizon Europe (2020-2027) and the successor to shif2Rail. The initiative has become the largest research programme in the railway sector within Europe, with funds reaching 1.2 billion euros (including a contribution of €600 million from Horizon Europe). The aim of this initiative is to support both the development of R&D projects such as the adoption and deployment of the different solutions generated as well as to offer, through an integrated system approach, “an integrated high-capacity, flexible, multimodal and reliable European Railway Network, removing obstacles to interoperability and providing solutions for full integration, for European citizens and freight”, as can be read on the programme’s own website. EU-Rail will provide technological and operational solutions to lead the transformation of the railway sector, working towards Europe’s dual green and digital transition.

In addition, Europe’s Rail will support the application of much more flexible approaches to railway service traffic planning and management. “Through the development of cutting-edge technologies designed to be implemented across the EU rail network, EU-Rail will help increase capacity and support smart and cost-effective railway connectivity, key to future sustainable mobility systems. EU-Rail’s results are expected to help improve the efficiency of the railway system and reduce overall life cycle costs, even on least used lines. This will be achieved contributing simultaneously to a more sustainable transport and mobility system”, they explain from the project.

“Europe’Railis the successor to Shift2Rail. The initiative has become largest research programme in the railway sector in Europe”