RFF – a strategic vision to battle global warming

Posted: 12 December 2009 | | No comments yet

Enhancing and developing the national rail network to promote rail transport in line with the principles of sustainable development, is the objective set out in the opening lines of the Act establishing Réseau Ferré de France (RFF) in 1997.

Enhancing and developing the national rail network to promote rail transport in line with the principles of sustainable development, is the objective set out in the opening lines of the Act establishing Réseau Ferré de France (RFF) in 1997.

Enhancing and developing the national rail network to promote rail transport in line with the principles of sustainable development, is the objective set out in the opening lines of the Act establishing Réseau Ferré de France (RFF) in 1997.

For the rail network manager, sustainable development is not just an abstract concept, nor is it a foregone conclusion but more a case of work in progress in relation to new collective milestone benchmarks such as the battle against global warming and loss of biodiversity, environmental risk control, lifestyle integration and overall social responsibilities.

To comply with French undertakings in this connection, RFF has embarked on a campaign of sustainable development in relation to its new challenges as a network manager: market opening, infrastructure modernisation, business model and governance. To improve nationwide accessibility and offer the prospect of sustainable less oil-dependent mobility, efforts to attenuate its carbon footprint are naturally a major target.

Undeniably, the ‘carbon footprint’ problem is particularly acute in the transport sector, which is responsible for 26% of all French greenhouse gas emissions. The ‘Grenelle 1′ Act of 3 August 2009 has set the target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the year 2020, in order to bring them back down to their 1990 level.

Road transport is first in line of fire, in the sense that it is responsible for more than 90% of all transport sector greenhouse gas emissions. Rail transport, as a factor in the sustainable development process, seems to provide a suitable response for a large proportion of travel needs. Measuring carbon efficiency is therefore central to performance.

RFF’s ‘carbon approach’ is designed to meet the following objectives:

1. Alleviating the impact of railway activities

A joint study carried out by the Transport Economics Laboratory of the University Lumière-Lyon 2 and the ENERDATA Centre in Grenoble, in association with RFF, and funded by ADEME and the Ministry of Transport, identified transport policy scenarios to meet this goal.

The starting point of the study was the obvious link between transport and income that is typical of our contemporary society and a source of concern, given that greater wealth is automatically synonymous with greater mobility. At the end of the 19th century, mobility averaged 4km per day per person (largely on foot), whereas today it has reached as much as 40km to 70km in the developed countries. If the present trend is allowed to continue as it is, with slower modes of travel gradually being replaced by faster alternatives (trains, then cars and finally air transport), by the end of the century each individual will cover an average of some 200,000km per year, with all the attendant problems for our environment. Unless drastic action is taken, air transport emissions alone will cancel out all the savings achievable by the other modes.

The target is attainable in the transport sector but only if major efforts to channel mobility are made by the public authorities and if there are changes in individual behaviour and the organisation of society (travel habits, business locations, just-in-time).

High speeds will continue to spearhead the battle against global warming but the carbon involved in producing electric power must be kept to a minimum and speeds will have to be adapted. For freight, it is vital to stamp out the current under-use of the network by diversifying the product range, offering new high-quality services (combined transport, local freight operators, etc.), suitably adapted, high performance infrastructure and new relationships with roads and ports. By adopting new forms of organisation (a highly illustrative example being clockface timetabling), it should be possible to make commuter services more attractive. But territorial planning with a denser and more mixed construction patterns will also be important.

2. Understanding how the network can contribute to ‘Factor 4′

In France, ‘Factor 4′ is the name given to the undertaking given by the President and Prime Minister to the international community in 2003 of ‘driving down national greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of 4 by 2050 to return them to their 1990 level’. This objective was confirmed at the Grenelle Environment Forum in 2007.

As a step towards developing the tools needed to optimise its ‘carbon performance’, RFF joined forces with ADEME and SNCF from 2007 to 2009 in carrying out the first-ever general carbon inventory (Bilan Carbone®) on a high-speed line: the eastern branch of the Rhine-Rhone line. The system that has been fine-tuned as a result will henceforth be used for other major projects and, subsequently, for other railway investments. The inventory has provided new information confirming the ecological benefits of the rail mode and identifying the scale of the emissions generated during the construction phase, enabling ways to be found to alleviate this impact. It is a tool that can be used to gauge the ‘environmental returns’ of an investment: for the Rhine-Rhone high-speed line, emissions in the construction phase can be offset by modal shift over 12 years of operation, thus confirming rail’s ecological benefits when designed as a mass transport mode.

The carbon inventory of the Rhine-Rhine high-speed line is a first in two respects: its application over the whole of the project life cycle (design, construction and operation-maintenance of the line and new stations, traffic, manufacture and maintenance of the 30 trainsets allocated to the project, through to complete renewal of all components except the track bed), and the robustness of the data produced (collected directly on site by each of the firms concerned).

The inventory gives details, in particular, for all the preparatory phases (studies, preliminary work), the civil engineering, fencing and landscaping operations, subordinate activities, railway equipment works, SNCF investment (building stations, technicentres, etc.) and line operation and maintenance.

The procedure consists of three parts. Firstly, an inventory is made of all greenhouse gas emissions generated more or less directly by the project. In other words, in addition to emissions from rail transport as such, the whole production and construction chain is taken into account, from mining the raw materials throughout the whole infrastructure life cycle, via the materials manufacture and deployment phases, project design and infrastructure maintenance work, with all the different protagonists contributing in the process (service providers, main contractors, sub-contractors). The second part consists of producing individual inventories for each phase using the emission factors provided by ADEME, or specifically created for the purpose, to convert data per activity (tonnes of steel cast, volumes of petrol consumed for the transport of materials, etc.) into emissions. The carbon inventory (Bilan Carbone®) is a system designed for use in making assessments not for producing finite calculations: its aim, in the third stage, is to pinpoint the sources generating the greatest amounts of greenhouse gas and to use this knowledge to produce an action plan enabling the different builders, designers, operators, etc. to find ways of driving down their emissions.

Among the main sources of emissions, the inventory showed that the materials used, 20% to 25% of which are processed with hydraulic binders, will require special effort: lime, cement, steel account for 33%, 15% and 10% respectively of the emissions from civil engineering operations, as against 10% for the actual transport of the materials. However, the biggest culprit to emerge from the overall inventory remains tractive power, the emissions of which are naturally highly dependent on the carbon content of the electricity used. Efforts concerning rolling stock, driving techniques and parasitic consumption could help reduce the electricity used for traction purposes by 30% to 40% by 2025 according to the projections emerging from the carbon inventory conducted on the Rhine-Rhine high-speed line.

Basically, there are a number of major conclusions that may be drawn from the carbon inventory of the Rhine-Rhine high-speed line, including:

  • Design, construction and operation over a period of 30 years generate just under two million tonnes of equivalent CO2, which is akin to the volumes produced by a city with a population of 200,000 inhabitants (for example, Besançon); over the complete life cycle of the high-speed line, the biggest source remains that of tractive power, which produces more emissions than line construction and is heavily affected by the carbon content of electricity
  • If a comparison is made between emissions from the construction and operation of the new line and the emissions that can be ‘avoided’ by model shift from road and air, it is possible to say that the advantages of a high-speed line largely outweigh its impact in terms of climatic change
  • The competitiveness of high-speed transport is confirmed over the longer term by this new method of calculation: some 12 years after commissioning the Rhine-Rhine high-speed line will be ‘carbon positive’, in other words the emissions avoided by virtue of modal shift will be greater than those produced during the design, construction and operation-maintenance phases

Looking further ahead, the carbon inventory of the Rhine-Rhone high-speed line should set the example for other railway projects currently under consideration. This pilot experiment with a new approach will provide a further way of assessing the potential benefits of the different projects proposed from the perspective of their ability to lessen greenhouse gas emissions, and thereby contribute towards enabling the French State to fulfil its undertakings in the battle against climate change.

Related organisations

Related regions