How Train Systems Around the World are Going Green

Discover the environmental benefits of train systems, and how countries are doing their part to improve sustainability and combat climate change.




Transportation is one of the fastest-growing contributors to climate change, accounting for almost a quarter of energy-related CO2 emissions.
Many experts foresee a significant increase in emissions by 2030, a result of population growth and increased demand.

Between 2006-2012, annual vehicle production skyrocketed by 110% in India, with production lines churning out 20.4m vehicles in 2012 compared to just 9.7m in
2006. In China, the vehicle population is set to soar to 300m by 2020, from only 65m in 2010. All of this is having – and will continue to have – a significant impact on our climate.

So, what can be done about these figures? The world still needs transportation after all. One way that seems to be gaining significant traction is through the use of train networks.

Environmental benefits of train systems

As a general rule, trains are already the greener option when it comes to travel. Worldwide, road users account for about 71% of transport CO2 emissions, with railway companies making up less than 1.8%, next to 12.3% for aviation and 14.3% for shipping, according to the International Energy Agency and International Union of Railways.

When trying to make a direct comparison passenger-for-passenger, however, it can be difficult to determine which is the better option. There are so many factors for businesses to consider, including the fuel type, speed, occupancy rate and load. For example, if the train is powered by diesel, with refined crude oil as its primary fuel source, it’s likely not as eco-friendly as using a hybrid electricity-powered vehicle.

That being said, if there’s space on the train for you and the products or services you need to move, it’s better to take it than add another form of transport into the mix. The fewer vehicles creating emissions, the better.

Transitioning to electricity

Around the world, many countries are transitioning their train systems from diesel to electricity to improve their sustainability. Unlike diesel-fuelled trains that have internal combustion engines, trains running on electricity can have their power generated from a variety of sources. These sources are typically more environmentally-friendly than diesel, ranging from geothermal and hydro to solar and wind energy.

On top of this, electric motors are almost four times more efficient than internal combustion engines, which means that even if the electricity source is still fossil fuels (such as coal), there’s still an immediate improvement on CO2 emissions.

High-speed rail

China, Japan and a large number of countries in Europe have embraced high-speed rail, some for decades – largely in part due to the transportation mode’s high level of sustainability. In a world where 95% of motorised mobility is currently fuelled by oil, high-speed rail offers a proven means of reducing our dependence on this energy source.

Focusing on Europe, rail is the primary form of intercity and international travel throughout the continent. While some of the networks are diesel-fuelled, it’s still an environmentally-friendly option in comparison to flight. This is because train stations are generally centrally-located, meaning that a traveller won’t need to take a second form of transportation to get to their final destination, as is typically the case with airports.

Making trains more aerodynamic

It’s not just the energy source – train design has a huge impact on the system’s sustainability. For example, Japan’s high-speed rail, called Shinkansen, both increased its speed and cut back its energy consumption by 40% only a few years ago. This was done by reducing the bullet train’s weight and redesigning the shape and length of the lead nose to be more aerodynamic. The less it weighs, and the quicker it can naturally travel, the less energy required to power the train, and therefore the less CO2 is released into the atmosphere.

In Australia, the Queensland Government awarded a contract for 75 six-carriage trains, known as Next Generation Rollingstock (NGR). The design included nose cones that resembled the existing Electric Tilt Trains for improved aerodynamic performance, helping to improve their energy efficiency.

Keeping people off the roads

The sustainability model of trains is largely built upon their heavy usage. The more people and businesses that take advantage of rail networks, the less people will use cars and other alternative modes of transport. For example, the daily capacity of the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka is approximately 320,000! That’s a lot of cars no longer required on the roads, which would have a significant impact on CO2 emissions.

This is only the beginning as well. As technology continues to advance, our train systems will naturally become more efficient, ultimately leading to greener, more sustainable transportation for the future. To learn more about the rail industry and the working requirements in Australia, be sure to subscribe to our blog.

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