Going Green in Sweden

18 June 2008 (Last Updated June 18th, 2008 18:30)

With a rail sector geared toward environmental sustainability, the industry can learn much from a visit to Sweden. Alex Hawkes reports.

Going Green in Sweden

Along with Ikea and blonde hair, Sweden is renowned for taking a strong stance on environmentally friendly practices. The country's rail sector is a shining example of sustainable development – combining renewable electricity-powered trains with innovative methods of raising customer awareness on environmental issues.

Sweden's leading passenger rail operator SJ and its freight equivalent Green Cargo offer a valuable insight into the Swedish way of thinking green. Both are government-owned and strong advocates of progressive environmental change.

The pair have also taken advantage of Sweden's large resource of renewable electricity, which, according to SJ's environmental manager Marie Hagberg, offers a logical step forward for powering rail.

"We wanted to do something that really addressed our carbon footprint," she says.

With Sweden possessing a number of hydroelectric and wind-powered energy plants capable of producing 100% renewable electricity, which could in turn be used for powering rail, the company believed it had a solution to achieving its long-term environmental goals.

"Sweden's rail sector combines renewable electricity – powered trains with innovative methods of raising customer awareness on environmental issues."

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Blessed with a large electrified track infrastructure, SJ was easily able to switch to a renewable electricity source in 1994 and has since made great strides in converting the remaining un-electrified lines.

With electrification of its entire rail network now complete, the company has been able to focus on developing a fleet of trains capable of fulfilling its climate-neutral aspirations.

"We are always trying to improve our environmental efficiency. A few weeks ago we purchased around 20 trains to add to our fleet of around 700," says Hagberg. "The new models are manufactured using less environmentally harmful materials compared to our present models. They also place a stronger emphasis on energy efficiency and energy recycling."

Such work has not gone unnoticed and SJ recently received a Grand Travel Award for its work in the field of energy recycling.

COMPLIMENTING RENEWABLE ENERGY

Hagberg says SJ has gone further though to reduce its carbon footprint with research being undertaken in fields such as regenerative electrical braking.

"You can make the journey using a train 15,000 times and create the same environmental impact as taking a flight just once."

While mechanical braking can cause unpleasant smelling emissions – particularly in tunnel environments – the application of electrical braking in combination with a more gentle braking technique can reduce wear and tear.

"By applying energy braking, the energy goes back into the line for other trains to use it, allowing us to save up to 20% of the track's energy," she adds.

SJ has also investigated the prospects of alternative fuels. In 2006 the company began operating one biogas train on routes that could not be electrically operated.

Reducing vibrations and noise levels, the train known as 'Amanda', has been named a resounding success, satisfying both local residents and environmentalists alike.

SJ even scraps its old carriages and locomotives in an eco-friendly fashion by manually dismantling them in order to source the recyclable materials. All waste created on board the trains is likewise sorted for recycling.

THE CUSTOMER'S DECISION

Further evidence of the company's stringent eco-friendly policies can be seen in the yearly environmental audit carried out using ISO guidelines. Here SJ has pledged its support to the Business Leaders Initiative on Climate Change (BLICC) and stated that under this, all train journeys will comply with the tough requirements of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation.

Meeting such requirements has only paid off for the rail company, which is winning with goodwill and attracting customers using carefully planned marketing, as seen on its website, which details every angle of SJ's environmental campaign – ultimately placing the incentive with the consumer.

Hagberg believes this gives customers an opportunity to contribute something positive to the environment. "Customers are not always exactly sure how environmentally friendly travelling by trains can be," she explains. "One of our biggest and most popular services is between Stockholm and Gothenburg, with air travel being our biggest competitor. However, you can actually make the journey using a train 15,000 times and create the same environmental impact as taking a flight just once.

"Of Green Cargo's operations, freight is carried 92% by electric trains, 3% by diesel trains and 5% by lorry."

"I now think commuters see environmental issues as important as price and quality when selecting their travel options."

Customers do get more than the feelgood notion they are doing something for the environment. SJ trains are provided with wireless connections and strong mobile connections, which allow commuters to work while they travel. "I now think commuters see environmental issues as important as price and quality when selecting their travel options," says Hagberg.

A CALCULATED MOVE

A similar focus is found on the website of rail-freight provider Green Cargo, which features an environmental calculator capable of estimating the environmental impact of each of its journeys. Green Cargo's environmental specialist Johan Sandström has followed the concept's evolution and believes it to be a valuable resource given the growing global focus on corporate responsibility.

"The idea behind the environmental calculator started around 15 years ago when it became clear each company had different figures regarding carbon emissions and environmental impact," he says.

"A roundtable organisation called the Network for Transport and Environment (NTM) was created consisting of government bodies, lobby organisations, producers and buyers of transport services, which eventually agreed on the emission factors to be used in the first model in 1995. It was a big task that took many years to complete."

Since then NTM went international to create a table of emission factors for European railway colleagues, which led to the current environmental calculator called Ecotransit. "The next stage for NTM is to gather information on a worldwide basis and have a server capable of calculating the environmental impact from a transport solution with updated methodology and data – it is a very exciting prospect indeed," Sandström adds.

THINKING FREIGHT

Effectively offering customers an environmentally friendly supply chain, Green Cargo goes to great lengths to ensure that goods are transported as carbon neutral as possible – namely by placing a prominent role on its renewable electricity powered trains. Of the company's operations, freight is carried 92% by electric trains, 3% by diesel trains and 5% by lorry. The diesel percentage in particular is one that Green Cargo is addressing on a frequent basis.

"Two years ago, the environment ranked eighth in the reasons why passengers choose our trains. This year it ranks first."

"One aim internally is to adjust our processes so we run more on electricity by lobbying the track holder to electrify the tracks where it is not or there are gaps missing," says Sandström. "This is especially the case for long routes where a small part of the track missing electrification means we must operate using a diesel model."

Meanwhile, Green Cargo has set about minimising the impact of its current diesel locomotive fleet by investing hundreds of millions of Euros in new diesel engines capable of consuming 20–30% less fuel than its old engines.

In the 1990s, the freight operator introduced sulphur-free diesel to its engines. "It took some time and cost to implement but we are now successfully running on ultra-low sulphur fuel, which is considerably lower than the European legal level," explains Sandström.

ATTRACTING SUPPORT

Unsurprisingly, both Green Cargo and SJ receive regular interest from rail operators outside of Sweden interested in their eco-friendly operations. Russian delegates, for example, have a visit planned to Green Cargo's operations so they can see how rail can be made cleaner.

SJ's Hagberg also believes their commuter rail services have seen them become global pioneers in terms of eco-friendly rail development. "We have been working on our environmental policies for sometime now and while in the past we were not earning any money from them we are certainly starting to do so now," she says.

"Through our customer surveys we have seen a massive change in the reason why a passenger selects to travel on board an SJ train. Two years ago, the environment ranked eighth in the reasons why passengers choose our trains. This year it ranks first."