“The time is right for Network Rail to not only be one of the safest railways in Europe but the greenest, too, by valuing nature and providing a railway for people and wildlife.” That was the conclusion of John Varley OBE, a land management expert and non-executive director of the UK’s Environment Agency, in an independent review into lineside vegetation management on the rail network.

The review, commissioned by then rail minister Jo Johnson MP, was in response to growing criticism of the operator’s environmental credentials after it was revealed millions of trees on the network were under threat of felling. Environmental charities such as the Woodland Trust called on the government to take action to protect the natural habitat on Network Rail’s vast estate, which covers 52,000 hectares and comprises 20,000 miles of track.

Varley’s report, The Vegetation Review published in November 2018, called on the Department for Transport (DfT) to draft and publish policy on environmental management of the rail network within six months of its publication. The remaining five recommendations called on Network Rail to take greater responsibility for lineside habitat – also known as the ‘green corridor’ – including setting out an “ambitious vision” for its estate. It’s most significant proposal was to achieve no net loss of biodiversity by 2024 and a net gain by 2040.

“We welcomed the review and have committed to taking action in response to all of John’s recommendations,” says Network Rail’s head of environment and sustainability, Dr Rossa Donovan. He adds managing lineside vegetation is a key responsibility. “The Varley Review presented us with an opportunity to develop an ambitious plan that supports our core purpose of delivering a safe and reliable railway while also increasing biodiversity on the railway,” he says.

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Network Rail on a mission to monitor wildlife

The company says since the review’s publication, it has worked to develop a set of standards that will see lineside vegetation managed as an asset. As part of its strategy, it will make better use of environmental data to improve net biodiversity and improve communications with those living or working near tracks when vegetation work is planned.

“We will be publishing an updated version of our vegetation management standard in early 2020.”

Among the initiatives it is currently working on is the aerial mapping of trees and vegetation – 10 million trees to date – to identify areas of concern and take action to ensure they are managed appropriately. Dr Donovan says Network Rail has been working with The Tree Council to meet the challenge of balancing the management of an operational railway with improving and enhancing biodiversity: “The Tree Council, in its role as champion of trees and critical friend to Network Rail, provides advice on vegetation management to help us achieve the balance, for the benefit of rail users, local communities and wildlife.”

As part of its efforts to meet the biodiversity requirements, the company is on a mission to recruit and train more ecologists and arboriculturalists to address current skills gaps. It is also introducing environmental KPIs for its devolved regions. “We will be publishing an updated version of our vegetation management standard in early 2020, requiring our teams to properly categorise the habitats that exist on the railway and ensure vegetation is treated as an asset,” Dr Donovan says.

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Currently all trackside workers are trained to recognise the wildlife they often meet, including common lizards, grass snakes, deer and water vole, often found in East Anglia, and pipistrelle bats known to roost in trees, tunnels and bridges across the network. As well as training, staff are equipped with mobile apps which help identify wildlife and build a database of all species living on the national estate.

Government challenges network to do more

In July 2019 the DfT said Network Rail was in a unique position to deliver improvements in biodiversity in the UK, adding its railways run through some of the most fragile and valuable habitats across the UK, and also provide important corridors for wildlife. “Despite recent changes, there is significant scope for improvement,” it continued,

Accepting there was an urgent need to address the backlog of safety critical work to meet the safety standard, it continued: “Nonetheless, we expect Network Rail to make full use of the opportunities this presents to improve biodiversity on its lineside estate.”

“We are clear that we can strike the right balance in maintaining a safe, punctual railway whilst protecting and enhancing biodiversity on the lineside.”

However, balancing the need for biodiversity with that of safety and requirements for an efficient rail network is a significant challenge. Almost 5 million journeys are made each day, double that of 20 years ago. However, Dr Donovan believes it is possible: “We are clear that we can strike the right balance in maintaining a safe, punctual railway whilst protecting and enhancing biodiversity on the lineside.”

Although in meeting that balance he accepted some trees will always have to be removed for safety reasons, he says the company will look at different management techniques such as pollarding and coppicing which will benefit environment and wildlife, as well as local communities.

He adds much is already being done, even at stations, to increase the network’s biodiversity. Often with the help of local community groups, planters, flower beds and even bee hives have been introduced at some stations. Dr Donovan acknowledged the support of local operators already, he believes greater use of this would help meet 2024 and 2040 targets. “Rail operators who are able to support such local initiatives with safe access and volunteer assistance, amongst other things, will be contributing to a green gateway to the railway and improving the experience for passengers and frontline staff alike,” he says.

Network Rail’s vision for the future

Network Rail has been tasked by the DfT to produce a vision statement and biodiversity action plan by the end of 2019. “The government expects Network Rail to publish annual reports on its activity and on progress towards meeting these goals using recognised reporting metrics,” it said, adding an agreed and published baseline is expected to be in place across all routes by 2024.

“The government expects Network Rail to publish annual reports on its activity and on progress.”

Speaking of the progress made since the publication of his report, Varley said although he doesn’t underestimate the challenge of delivering on his recommendations, the leadership, commitment and progress he’d seen gave him confidence. “I’m impressed with how much Network Rail and government have achieved in the last seven months. There is a now a clear policy, a vision and a commitment to protect and enhance biodiversity, while continuing to keep safety centre stage.”

Saying the network of the future will continue to offer a greener and more efficient way of transporting goods across the country via freight too, Dr Donovan concluded: “The land we own and operate is a rich habitat and a vital wildlife corridor across Britain… As we work to implement a number of changes in response to the Varley review – establishing new processes and building a culture dedicated to enhancing natural habitats – we continue to look at how we can go further and demonstrate our leadership on this issue.”

The biodiversity action plan will provide greater insight into plans the operator has for the future of the network and its place as a home for wildlife in the years to come. “The railway of the future will manage its estate sustainably to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and be net-positive for biodiversity,” Dr Donavon says.