In May, a train carrying finished motor vehicles left DB Cargo’s pan-European terminal in Mainz, Germany, and began the 400km+ journey to the freight company’s London Eurohub in Essex, UK.

The inter-modal facility in Barking at the western edge of the European rail network is connected directly to HS1 and the Channel Tunnel, and is capable of handling up to 150,000 vehicles per year.

What made this particular journey special was its unique eco-credentials. By offsetting 100% of the train’s emissions via supporting an innovative eco-project in Rwanda, Africa, DB Cargo can legitimately claim to have operated the first entirely climate-neutral train between the European mainland and the UK.

Rail already produces around 76% less CO2 than an equivalent journey via HGVs, but this milestone, part of DB Cargo’s Eco Neutral project which invites customers to offset emissions by supporting eco projects across the world, represents a potentially important step toward sustainable rail travel.

“The final calculated cost of the carbon-neutral journey from Germany to the UK was donated to a project in Rwanda that generates 40,000t in CO2 savings a year over ten years.”

“We first began to develop the Eco Neutral programme in the UK in 2015 to enable customers to offset their carbon emissions and make their supply chains more environmentally friendly,” says Modestas Lukauskas, strategic project manager at DB Cargo UK. “We partnered with Atmosfair, a climate protection organisation that enables companies to compensate for CO2 emissions by supporting renewable energy programmes across the globe.”

He continues that, “After a customer has used our rail freight services, we calculate the CO2 produced on the journey to determine how much it will cost to compensate. Through Atmosfair, the customer can then choose which project they wish to fund. Examples include the generation of clean electricity through wind turbines or biogas support programmes that guarantee an environmentally friendly energy supply.

“In May, DB Cargo UK was proud to run the first ever carbon-neutral train in the UK through the Eco Neutral programme. Calculations were made to determine how much it would cost to compensate for the emissions released and the calculated cost was used to support a project in Rwanda that equips families, including those in camps for displaced people, with highly efficient firewood stoves.”

The gold standard: ECO Transit IT and the Atmosfair initiative

DB Cargo uses specialist software to calculate the cost required to compensate for emissions and the service is open to all European customers, regardless of the product being moved and the location.

“The ECO Transit IT software takes into account distance, locomotive type, the weight of material being carried, net weight, product type, traction type – whether it is electric or diesel − backload statistics, payload capacity, and fuel / electricity consumption,” explains Lukauskas.

He adds: “The final calculated cost of the carbon-neutral journey from Germany to the UK was donated to a project in Rwanda that generates 40,000t in CO2 savings a year over ten years and benefits families using the stoves by providing a more economical and environmentally friendly method for cooking.

“In 2015 DB Cargo UK also became the first company in the country to introduce auto engine stop start technology (AESS) to its Class 66 locomotive fleet.”

“The firewood stoves use up to 80% less wood than traditional three-stone fires and replacing charcoal leads to even higher wood savings, as 9kg of wood must be burnt to produce just 1kg of charcoal. The stoves are assembled by local partners, who also teach people how to use them.”

The CO2 generated by DB Cargo rail freight services is offset by compensation certificates purchased from Atmosfair in accordance with the 2003 Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Gold Standard, a global certification standard for carbon offset projects supported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“Atmosfair holds the CDM Gold Standard Certificate, the strongest existing standard for climate protection projects,” says Lukauskas. “The CDM Gold Standard ensures that carbon credits funding the projects are verifiable and that measureable contributions are made to global sustainable development. At least 90% of Atmosfair’s CO2 savings follow this standard; the remainder are certified according to the Gold Standard microscale due to the smaller size of the projects.”

Emissions statement: inside the Eco Neutral programme

The concept of emissions offsetting in the freight logistics industry is nothing new; airlines and road transportation companies already offer the service. Are DB Cargo’s motives for embracing offsetting purely altruistic or are there business incentives for clients to sign-up to the Eco Neutral scheme?

“DB Cargo UK aims to be an eco-pioneer and helping to protect the environment is an important part of the company’s strategy,” states Lukauskas. “Creating the Eco Neutral programme contributes to this objective and supports the company’s development in corporate social responsibility (CSR).

“We actively seek innovative ways to continuously improve our eco performance and Eco Neutral enables us to work with our customers to achieve these aims, while at the same time supporting projects and people worldwide. DB Cargo UK makes no financial gain from the programme.”

“We expect locomotive and wagon technology will continue to improve the eco performance and efficiency of rail even further, particularly in hybrid and electric models.”

Under the auspices of its DB2020 Group strategy, the DB Cargo UK is also trialling alternative fuels, recycling assets and purchasing electric vehicles for travel on and between the company’s sites.

“In 2015 DB Cargo UK also became the first company in the country to introduce auto engine stop start technology (AESS) to its Class 66 locomotive fleet. The unique system works in a similar way to stop-start technology in a car, stopping the engine from running when idling,” Lukauskas explains.

“The equipment was manufactured by ZTR Control Systems and underwent rigorous testing by DB Cargo UK on rail lines across Cornwall before its implementation” he adds. “Results from the initial trials showed that the amount of time an engine was running was reduced by approximately one third when the AESS equipment was used. The investment will save an estimated 8,550t in CO2 emissions every year when 169 Class 66 locomotives have been fitted with the systems, as planned.”

Outmoded: green innovations and the transition from road to rail

A recent report by the Campaign for Better Transport claims that a 50% increase of rail and water freight would cut HGV traffic on key routes by 21%, leading to a 15%−25% fall in congestion; a much larger impact than figures released by the UK Department for Transport (DFT) originally suggested.

In addition to the collaborative work undertaken by DB Cargo and Atmosfair in Rwanda, the Eco Neutral programme encompasses clean electricity generation via wind turbines in Nicaragua and a biomass support programme in India that guarantees an environmentally friendly energy supply.

Following these achievements, what innovations does Lukauskas expects to see in the freight rail sector in the short to medium–term, and is he confident that the industry is committed to preserving its status as the most environmentally friendly mode of travel?

“We expect locomotive and wagon technology will continue to improve the eco performance and efficiency of the rail sector even further, particularly in hybrid and electric models,” he says. “Further electrification of the UK rail network will also contribute to this as more electric locomotives can be used as an alternative to diesel models.”