Sustainable development is about creating a balance between meeting the needs of a growing population and the health of our planet by embracing environmental sustainability, safety, inclusion and resilience.

With this in mind, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) challenge us to think more broadly and adopt a holistic perspective.

Rail, as part of a wider strategy for urban mobility, plays an important role in addressing many of the SDGs – some directly and some indirectly. Understanding this point requires a shift from thinking what rail ‘is’, to consider what it ‘does’.

Rail underpins economic growth; it has the potential to support responsible consumption and a circular economy in the face of increasing urbanisation and population growth. It provides improved access to jobs, creating a more inclusive and equitable society. By connecting communities and providing improved access to education, rail also supports a more diverse, more skilled workforce, as well as cultural exchange, which is key to social cohesion.

Rail reduces road congestion and carries more customers and more freight using less energy than most other modes of transport. It also produces fewer emissions. The need to increase the use of renewable energy is supported by advances in alternative fuel sources for rail, such as hydrogen and solar power.

Rolling stock energy efficiency is also addressed by technologies such as regenerative braking and heat exchangers. Railway stations such as the Fulton Center in New York (p. 84) are leading the way in terms of an energy-efficient and waste-minimising design approach.

Rail can drive better land planning if the balance with the potential impact on the surrounding environment is successfully considered. The creation of biodiverse rail verges is an example of how rail can help to support, rather than degrade, the surrounding natural habitat.

Overall, the challenges we face are complex and require collaboration within and between sectors, and interdisciplinary research that drives innovation. Rail is part of the solution to a sustainable future. In this context, a strong commitment of the rail industry’s stakeholders to the SDGs will drive the development of safer, more resilient and sustainable railways, for everyone.