Alex Wilson reports on how rail firms are improving their sustainability reporting world-wide

The railway industry is not renowned for sustainability leadership. Despite the obvious carbon and pollution advantages of rail over flight, many rail firms have been slow to demonstrate public accountability via specific corporate responsibility reporting.

One firm, the Hong Kong rail company MTR, is regarded as a world leader in its reporting of sustainability and corporate responsibility. Compared to other major rail firms such as Eurostar, information is easily accessible to everyone via its website, the link being prominently displayed at the top of the main company website. On most other rail company websites, their sustainability pages are buried several layers down, likely to be visited only by the most dedicated searcher.

MTR produces an annual report into their corporate responsibility work and post details of the outreach programmes they engage in. In their most recent report for 2010, published earlier this month, MTR reveals that they recycle 100% of spent oil and have reduced their annual water consumption by over 20,000 cubic meters since 2009.  MTR as also announced a policy of rewarding its suppliers for coming in at or under budget, a clear commitment to ‘financial sustainability’ in the supply chain, alongside cost savings.

There appears to be a growing awareness of the particular benefits for rail operators that can come from sustainability reporting. Elaine Cohen from corporate responsibility consulting firm Beyond Business stresses the benefits that companies can gain from sustainability reporting. She pointed out that the rail sector does not have a highly public positive image. Her view is that reporting can help transform rail into a modern, attractive transportation option.

Train companies are well placed to take advantage of the concerns of the current age. Elaine Cohen points out that, “There is an opportunity to position rail travel as the environmentally preferred option, as low carbon transportation which helps avoid urban traffic congestion. Rail helps people commute to and from work with significantly reduced carbon emissions per traveller, fewer accidents and possibly, improved quality of life.”

The German operator Deutsche Bahn is also making particular efforts at sustainability, aiming to raise the percentage of its energy sourced from sustainable resources to 28% by in 2015 and aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050. They claim that they are embarking on this ambitious project due to demand from their customers. The US entrepreneur Warren Buffett has also joined the trend, investing in US railways as being environmentally advantageous over roads.

So could other rail firms be missing a trick with their sustainability reporting and could they learn from MTR? Glen Frommer, sustainability development manager at MTR says that their annual sustainability reports were requested by some major Hong Kong investors and that they are designed to help the company avoid future pitfalls. Mr Frommer stated that their reporting’s impact on their public image is of secondary importance. The financial advantage, Frommer says, is that their transparency has enabled the company to get a rebate of their insurance premium. He also claims that MTR’s reputation enables them to attract, retain and motivate very high quality employees.

Another rail company that is making a big effort in the area of sustainability reporting is the American firm Union Pacific. Like MTR, access to their reporting is prominently displayed on the front page of their website and they have published a sustainability report for the past two years.

The Brussels based UITP (International Association of Public Transport) is also promoting sustainability reporting, publishing a charter for sustainability in the transport sector and producing a template for sustainability reporting based on tried and tested methods followed by companies like MTR, which helped in its development.

These efforts could be sign of a growing trend among rail operators, all keen to improve their public image and relations with their customers. As Elaine Cohen puts it “The rail sector is…trying to present its unique position.”   

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