Decarbonising the world of rail

Vice president of sustainability and CSR, Cecile Texier, outlines how Alstom is moving to facilitate greener and cleaner modes of rail transport.

Cecile Texier is an unashamed optimist when it comes to the future of humanity and adapting to the challenges of climate change.

“I would say I am optimistic. There are good signals from governments around the world,” Texier said.

“The pandemic has caused some significant issues but it is also leading to opportunities and I think it is raising questions about mobility patterns and how they could evolve,” she said.

“We have technologies that are available to enable a transition towards greener transport and decarbonisation of economies.

“I would say I am rather optimistic. even if there is a clear need to strengthen action and accelerate transition.”

Towards change

Few now doubt the challenges that will come with decarbonising the world. It is also apparent rail must play a prominent role in the movement of both goods and people in a cleaner economy, given its comparative advantages of lower emissions compared with road transport. As vice president for sustainability and CSR for Alstom, one of the world’s major players in the development and delivery of railway systems and technologies, Cecile Texier is perhaps uniquely qualified to speak about how rail is adapting to this rapidly changing context.

Starting with Alstom back in 2011 as ‘sustainability director’, it is clear much has changed.

“At the time I was focusing mostly on the environmental programs in the operations,” she said.

“But it was also the beginning of seeing specific sustainability requirements in customers tenders, which were an important early reinforcement of our focus on sustainability at Alstom.”

A variety of green targets have been introduced by the company during the past decade. Then in 2015, the business opted to sell its energy division to General Electric, leaving Alstom to concentrate on transport and particularly greener transport.

“We issued the Alstom 2020 strategy at the time (2015), which had some key sustainability focal points including energy usage, diversity and safety. 

“And then we progressed, and our customers attitudes evolved, and we see more and more requirements from our clients for things like eco-design,” Texier said.

A range of European reporting requirements also influence the business, as well as increased expectations from both employees and civil society. Texier also described the role of finance, with investors and project financiers increasingly concerned about the projects they are bankrolling and their environmental strengths and weaknesses. Currently in the European Union, with the taxonomy defining business activities considered sustainable, electrical passenger rail transport has been classified as sustainable whereas full diesel passenger rail does not meet that threshold.

“I think this will also push and accelerate the transition from diesel-powered rail,” Texier said.

As well as carbon reduction, caring for people and the environment is a key part of Alstom’s sustainability focus. 

“We have a focus on having a positive impact on society and supporting local development through community activities and the Alstom Foundation, is very active in this space,” Texier said.

“Prior to the BT acquisition, our figures showed we had about 9000 people participating in environmental and social volunteering activities of close to 40,000 employees, which shows the level of commitment and a real interest from our people for this topic.

“Beyond that, also through developing local business, developing new factories with local supply chains and a local workforce such as we have done in India or South Africa for example, pushing local development in a sustainable way.”

Texier said the company also placed a considerable focus on “acting as a responsible business partner”.

“Here we focus on sustainable supply chains and also ethical and compliant practices.

“All this has contributed to raising the level of ambition in the new Alstom strategy, Alstom in Motion,” Texier said.

Within this new groupstrategy, Alstom has issued both financial targets and non-financial commitments to society. These included the decarbonisation of mobility, with the aim to push towards a more sustainable transport system, with targets to reduce the energy use of Alstom rail products 25% by 2025, from a 2014 base. The company is also focused on eco-friendly design solutions for the whole life of its trains, from manufacture, through use and maintenance to end-of-life.

Global and local challenges

Alstom places its business squarely in a world that faces the tremendous challenges of climate change and global warming.

“We have seen these terrible events around the world among the first consequences of climate change.

“Along with much of the business world, we are striving to limit global temperature rises but the reality is we are already at plus-one degree on preindustrial levels,” she said.

“This is already generating significant disruption in the natural scheme of things; rising sea levels, melting ice and heat waves.

“Climate change today is a reality; the Paris agreement has said we should reach climate neutrality by 2050 so all economic sectors – including rail and transport – are working towards that goal.”

Transport must do better

Texier notes progress in emissions reduction, particularly in the field of power generation. In Europe, emissions from industry, from power generation and from buildings have decreased significantly since the 1990s. The only sector where emissions are much higher than the 1990 reference point is in transport.

“Transport is now a third higher than the reference point,” Texier said. 

“Our ability to reach the Paris agreement target will be determined, largely, by the efforts and success we have in transport.

“But what we can say is that, with the figures from last year and the influence of the pandemic, global carbon emissions dropped by six per cent. 

“Why are they down? Because of the reduction in transport.

“For me, this is really where the challenge is going to be met or not.”

Cutting emissions and the use of hydrogen

Reducing emissions in the field may be relatively simple in areas such as Europe that have a highly-electrified network. In Australia the context is perhaps more complex, with diesel still playing a crucial role in the long-haul interstate and intrastate journeys.

Can a mammoth freight train trip from Townsville to Brisbane, for example, be decarbonised? While making clear the differences with Europe, Texier believes there may be lessons for Australia.

“In Europe, we still have about 25 per cent of the rail network running on diesel and there is a need to switch to more environmentally-friendly forms of energy and the natural trend will be to switch to electricity powered by renewable energy,” she said.

“So in Europe electrification would seem to be the first option to consider and I would say that is always an option to assess in other regions too.

“If electrification is not feasible because it is too costly, then you need to examine the vehicles involved and then consider other options such as hydrogen.”

As has been well-documented, Alstom is a key player in the development of hydrogen-powered trains. The company began its first commercial hydrogen operation back in 2018. Further orders of hydrogen-powered trains in France occurred this year.

“As a fuel source hydrogen brings a lot of autonomy,” Texier said.

“The way of managing a train powered by hydrogen is actually quite similar to one managed by diesel.

“You can do the refill in ten minutes and you have an autonomy that is between 800 and 1000km.”

Another alternative would be batteries but Texier said this was perhaps unlikely. “It would be very difficult, I think, to imagine that battery can do long distance, at least for the type of distances one would be talking of in Australia,” she said.

“The last option, if you want to be fair, would be biofuels, but there are still drawbacks regarding land use and production methods and you still have some emissions, particularly nitrous oxide.”

The future is now

While the deadlines for moving to non-emitting trains and rollingstock may seem a few years away, the decisions of today are sure to have real impacts.

“We can’t be thinking decisions about 2030 or 2050 are a long way off,” an Alstom spokesperson said.

“You will be purchasing those assets today that will still be operational in 20 -30 years – and it is not just rolling stock, it is the efficiency of your network, signalling systems and infrastructure – these decisions need to be made to now.

“We need to be making those decisions now in order to meet those targets.”

Reasons for optimism

Texier feels more optimistic today than a year ago, with governments slowly getting policy heading in the right direction. 

“Despite the Covid crisis where we put a number of things on hold, we have had good signals from governments,” she said.

“The US has launched a massive green infrastructure plan, China announced they want to be carbon neutral by 2060 and the European Union has said they plan to cut emissions by 55 per cent over 1990 levels by 2030.

“The three largest economies have thus taken important steps to drive the reduction of CO2 emissions worldwide.

“We understand the challenges, but I believe rail can be a force for change and Alstom is ideally-placed to facilitate that change.”

 

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