Rail transport and the Environmental Challenge


The transport sector is one of the largest consumers of energy and one of the main causes of continuously increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In Spain, the transport sector is the main CO2 generator, with more than 27% of total emissions.

The European Green Deal establishes the key pillars that should structure climate action so that the European Union can become a carbon neutral and competitive economy by 2050. The first European “Climate Law”, whose proposal was presented by the European Commission in March 2020, will set a target of reducing current emissions to 50% by 2030 (which would represent 55% compared to 1990 levels).

Rail transport is the mode of public transport with the lowest emissions per passenger and, therefore, has a decisive role in the fight against climate change. And only by promoting the railway as the backbone of national transport and sustainable mobility policies, it will be possible to achieve the objectives set by the European Union and the international community.

The shift from other modes to rail will allow a reduction in emissions to the atmosphere. And it will not only contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases but also of other polluting gases (NOx and particles) and other environmental pollutants such as noise, luminescence, etc.

On the other hand, railway is not only the most environmentally friendly mode of transport due to its low emissions of polluting gases, but also because of its capacity efficiency, that is, thanks to its enormous capacity to transport both passengers and freight with a very low environmental impact. In addition, modern rolling stock is easily configurable and flexible to adapt itself to changing demand.

Rail has also proved to have a low accident rate and high efficiency in transfers since, if efficiently managed, it is not affected by delays or adverse weather conditions as much as other modes of transport.

Energy expenditure is also another key aspect in rail transport and therefore in the sector. Proof of this is that Adif and Adif-AV (High Speed branch) have opted for the Purchase of Green Electric Energy, that is, energy with Origin Guarantee Certificates (GdO), thanks to which it is guaranteed that all the electricity consumed both by Adif and Adif AV, as for other railway operators, is of renewable origin.

In addition, the European railway industry in general and the Spanish in particular, is one of those that invest the most in innovation and technologies which contribute to greater energy efficiency in many aspects, such as traffic management systems, signaling, energy recovery and regeneration, energy storage, reversible substations, useful life of materials, measurement systems, maintenance, etc. And it is especially efficient in energy consumption during the manufacturing of rolling stock and equipment.

The concept of circular economy has begun to take significant relevance in our sector.

Aware of the limitation of resources and the need to obtain the highest value from these for the longest possible time, many companies have modified their products / services so that when materials and components reach their end of life, these can be recovered and recycled.

In the railway sector, digitization is being developed on four main axes: user experience, operational processes, employee training and transformation of the business model. Digitization provides travelers with more attractive

and integrated mobility, enhancing the passenger experience. Furthermore, it enables railway operators to make their infrastructures intelligent, guaranteeing availability and increasing sustainability throughout the entire life cycle of the product.

From both a Spanish and European perspective, sustainability plays a determining role as a factor of competitiveness for our industry, both at the manufacturing, operation and maintenance levels, compared to competitors from emerging countries, increasingly present in the global market.

To achieve the global objectives in the fight against climate change, Spanish and international institutions must implement sustainable mobility measures. Consequently, it is necessary to place rail transport, for both people and goods, as the backbone of national transport policies, as well as to promote a mayor implementation a and business development.

In this sense it is necessary:

  • That Public Administrations promote and support railway transport as the axis of their policies and strategies for sustainable transport in the medium and long term, where intermodality plays a key role, favoring a modal shift in the transport of passengers and goods in favor of the railway.


  • A firm commitment by Public Administrations with RTD programs, including long-term financing plans, to promote the development of rail transport along the value chain.


  • An industrial and institutional leadership to promote the latest technological developments allowing the reduction of emissions and greater, even if possible, efficiency in energy expenditure, from early phases to manufacturing, operation and maintenance; betting on smart grids, the use of simulators that facilitate efficient driving or improving the sustainability of stations and hubs.


  • National and international financial organizations have appropriate financing mechanisms to ensure the implementation of sound sustainable transport policies that support the use of rail, taking into account the advantages that the use of public transport represents for citizens beyond the economic factor and direct costs.


  • An integrated public transport network, comprising comfortable, fast, safe and reliable urban and interurban railways, must be considered a priority as an intelligent and sustainable mobility solution for Smart Cities. It will also be necessary to integrate into this ecosystem of smart mobility new actors that are emerging and that also have an impact on mobility (carsharing, deterrent parking lots, etc.). By 2050, 68% of the world population is expected to be urban. Currently, more than 80% of the population of Latin American and Caribbean region lives in cities, and half a million new residents are registered every month. New digital technologies are going to transform the way we approach mobility. This process should be carried out from a perspective that puts users at the center of the system, offering the best experience in mobility. Providing the most efficient solution at all times by integrating data from different sources for an easy and simple intermodality, which allows moving towards new paradigms of mobility until reaching Mobility as a Service.


  • Public Administrations must also commit to upgrading rail infrastructure and rolling stock in order to promote the competitiveness of passengers and freight rail transport. In this sense, it is of vital importance the development of operation and propulsion systems, as well as new materials which will dematerialize the sector.


  • Public advertising and dissemination campaigns must be carried out, especially addressed to passengers, to raise awareness and promote the use of public transport, highlighting environmental sustainability of rail sector transportation.

Rail transport must play a fundamental role in the face of environmental challenges and the fight against climate change. For this reason, its defense and further development is key, placing rail as the backbone of transport policies and strategies, at both national and global, in the long term.


Source: European Environment Agency, 2016

1 Objectives established during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21 held in Paris in 2015) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which collects 17 Sustainable Development Goals).
2 CO2 emissions are calculated using an estimate of the amount of CO2 per passenger and kilometer. Different modes of transport are analyzed, using  as estimation an average number of passengers per mode of transport. As the number of passengers in a vehicle increases, the total CO2 emissions of that vehicle increase, but the emissions
per passenger decrease.
3 To move 1,000 people you need 15 buses or a range of 250-1,000 cars instead of one single 8 coach-train.