Keeping UK rail’s decarbonisation journey on track

Frankie Youd speaks to Fugro rail business manager Mark Thomas about how technology can be used to reduce rail’s environmental impact and how the company’s technology can assist National Rail’s plans for long-term decarbonisation.


ith digital initiatives such as contactless payments, e-ticketing and pre-booking technology already transforming customer experience, the rail industry is now full steam ahead towards digital initiatives that lead to a more sustainable destination.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated technology and digitalisation within the industry, which has seen numerous rail operators implementing new tech to improve customer experience.

Fugro, a leading provider of geo-intelligence and asset solutions for infrastructure, natural resources and constructions have been assisting the rail industry via the provision of data, 3D surveying technology and technology testing.

The development of Fugro’s RILA solution provides owners and engineers with data that can be used for a wide variety of purposes such as designing new track alignment, planning track access, and assessing clearance on track.

Aerial view of the derailment. Image: UK Government

Mark Thomas, rail business manager at Fugro

Mark Thomas, rail business manager at Fugro

Frankie Youd: Can you tell us about Fugro’s work in assisting the rail industry with decarbonisation?

Mark Thomas: The UK rail industry has been undergoing a rapid period of digital transformation. Initiatives such as contactless payments have already provided the customer experience with a digital overhaul. Now, digitisation and digital management of rail infrastructure are accelerating operations and maintenance towards a more sustainable future.

Fugro's target is to become a net-zero carbon contributor within our own operations by 2035. We are also committed to helping our customers reduce their carbon emissions through the deployment of our technologies.

When we were developing a system for measuring and analysing rail infrastructure, our priority was to design a way of performing track-based surveys that are safer, faster, cheaper and have a smaller environmental impact than traditional ground survey methods.

This led us to develop the train-mounted RILA solution, a system that provides the accurate insights of competing solutions using in-service trains running at regular speed and with no impact on network capacity. RILA is the only track-based measurement system that can connect to any passenger train and produce geodetically referenced engineering-accuracy asset data, measured at line speed, without affecting the train’s normal operating performance.

RILA forms part of Fugro’s RailData solution, which provides engineering, maintenance, and asset management datasets from a single data collection, where previously rail infrastructure companies would need to procure separate surveys.

One in five candidates turn down job interviews or offers due to travel inaccessibility.

What can you tell us about Network Rail’s long-term decarbonisation plans?

To support the government’s net-zero carbon pledge, Network Rail has published a comprehensive decarbonisation strategy, a long-term plan to kick-start a green revolution in the rail industry. Their areas of focus include a low-emission and reliable railway, improved biodiversity, minimal waste, and the use of sustainable materials.

To achieve this, the industry will need to focus on improving operations, but also on removing diesel traction from the network using electrification, hydrogen, and battery-powered trains. It’s also likely that routes with high-speed services and heavy freight will need to be electrified.

Although rail currently contributes less than 1% of the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions, it is better positioned than most other forms of transport to operate using a zero-carbon solution. However, significant investment in electrification and technology will be paramount to achieving this goal.

How can technology be used to drive down overall environmental impact?

To support the rail industry’s journey towards decarbonisation, more large-scale accurate data analysis on asset performance will be needed to support the widespread transformation of the rail industry during 2021 and into the future.

Looking in more detail at our RILA technology system, the data from a single RILA collection can be used for myriad purposes by multiple asset owners and engineers. The data can be used by maintenance teams to plan track access, gauging engineers to assess clearance, and to help engineers design new track alignment.

Using RILA instead of conventional ground survey techniques also negates the potentially hundreds of van journeys needed to transport surveyors to site. A recent Network Rail benefits analysis suggested a 50% emissions saving even when RILA was mounted to a dedicated diesel locomotive.

How can leveraging existing technologies assist the rail industry work towards a sustainable future?

Technology has a significant role to play when it comes to asset management and optimisation in the rail industry, both of which are essential for a long-term sustainable future. There is a huge amount of embodied carbon in the construction and manufacturing of rail assets. Optimising the life cycle of existing assets will reduce the carbon emissions generated by replacements.

To optimise asset life, the industry needs up-to-date data on asset performance and condition, and this can be collected using the RILA system. This data can then be analysed and used for maintenance.

For example, we recently completed the InnoTamp project in collaboration with Network Rail with funding from Innovate UK and the Department for Transport. A world-first for track maintenance, the project demonstrated how track alignments generated using Geo-data from Fugro’s RILA system can be directly uploaded to a tamper’s computer to optimise tamping of railway lines.

The immediate benefit is improved productivity but over time it will lead to lower annual maintenance costs, less disruption to rail services, and extended asset lifecycles, all of which contribute to long-term carbon reduction and a more sustainable future.

What do you think the future holds for the rail industry’s decarbonisation efforts?

The future is looking very positive. Rail is the mode of ground transport that has one of the clearest and relatively most achievable routes to decarbonisation.

Cars, vans, and heavy goods vehicles account for 95% of surface transport emissions, with rail contributing less than 3%. Even with a significant increase in the use of electric road vehicles, the embodied carbon required to manufacture and sustain road vehicles and roads themselves means that this mode of transport will increasing become unsustainable. Therefore, transport decarbonisation will require a greater shift to rail, especially for longer distance journeys and freight activities.

More rail traffic will result in an ever greater need to understand the condition of the rail network so that maintenance activities can be optimised. This is where survey tools such as RILA come in; additionally, the advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning that Fugro RailData offers will help to deliver accurate assessments and support decision-making.

Fugro’s mission is to unlock insights from geo-data to create a safe and liveable world. Whilst Geo-data alone can’t solve the world’s environmental crises, we believe passionately that evolving new technology-driven processes to understand the earth itself and the performance of built assets is a significant part of solving this puzzle.

Image of Axel Schuppe. Credit: The German Railway Industry Association.

Main image: Fugro’s RILA survey system in action. Credit: Fugro