Augmenting Rail Network, Future Urban Mobility and Climate Change

Revitalizing Rail Networks to Counter Climate Change and Redefine City Transportation

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Urban Transport: An Introduction

The urban transport system is a collection of transport infrastructures and modes that facilitate passenger and freight mobility in cities. It expresses the level of accessibility in general. The three broad categories of urban mobility or transportation are collective, individual, and goods or freight transport. While passenger mobility is determined by individual decisions based on a number of variables, freight mobility is determined collaboratively by freight owners and transportation service providers. Urban locations are the most challenging environments for passenger and freight mobility. Passengers and freight movements are complementary in different conditions, but they may compete for the use of available land and transportation infrastructures outlined as:

Collective Transport (Public Transit): The goal of communal and collective transportation is to provide public transportation in specified areas of the city. The networks are often owned and operationalised by the agency, and access is free to all as long as a fare is paid; hence, they are called as public transportation. The efficiency of public transport networks is predicated on the ability to convey huge numbers of people while obtaining economies of scale. Trams, buses, trains, subways, and ferries are examples of such modes.

Individual Transportation: Any kind of mobility that is the result of personal choice and means, such as automobiles, walking, cycling, or motorcycling, is included. Most people walk to meet their fundamental mobility needs, but this number varies depending on the city. Individual mobility may be preferred in some cases, while in others, it may be hampered.

Freight Transportation: Since cities are prominent centres of production and consumption, urban activities are accompanied by vital movements of goods and freight. Delivery trucks generally moving between industries, distribution centres, warehouses, and retail activities, as well as significant terminals such as ports, rail yards, distribution centres, and airports. The expansion of e-commerce has been linked to an increase in parcel home deliveries. Freight mobility within cities is often underestimated, yet it is an important aspect of the burgeoning area of urban logistics.

Rapid urbanisation in most parts of the world has increased passenger and freight mobility in cities. Mobility also involves wider distances, but evidence suggests that switching times have remained rather consistent over the last century; on average, 1 to 1.2 hours per day are spent. This means that commuting has increasingly transitioned to speedier modes of transportation, allowing for greater distances to be covered in the same period of time. Every mode of urban mobility, whether walking, driving, or taking public transportation, requires a certain level of fitness to meet mobility requirements. Various transport technologies and infrastructures have been deployed, resulting in a diverse set of urban transport systems worldwide. In developed nations, there have been four major phases of urban growth, each associated with a different type of urban mobility, with a fifth phase currently underway.

Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues confronting humanity in the 21st century. Human activity has significantly increased global atmospheric concentrations of ‘greenhouse gases,’ such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). The primary causes of these increases are human activities such as the use of fossil fuels and land use changes such as deforestation and agriculture. Greenhouse gas emissions are most likely the primary contributor to current and future climate change.

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues confronting humanity in the twenty-first century. Human activity has significantly increased global atmospheric concentrations of ‘greenhouse gases,’ such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and Nitrous Oxide (N2O). The primary causes of these increases are human activities such as the use of fossil fuels and land use changes such as deforestation and agriculture. Greenhouse gas emissions are most likely the primary contributor to current and future climate change.

However, if action is taken now, the worst impacts can be avoided until the middle of the century. The effects will be very diverse in different parts of the planet. The effects are projected to be more severe in the south, especially in developing countries where topography and a lack of adaptation of resources make them more vulnerable.

Urban Transport and Climate Change

The transport sector is vital to the social and economic growth of society. Today, life is nearly impossible without access to modern transportation systems. Almost every human activity pertains to transportation, including bringing students to schools and colleges, workers to their employment and workplaces, selling to consumers, and facilitating participation in social and recreational activities, to name a few. Because it is mostly powered by fossil fuels, the industry is liable for environmental externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions. 

In 2022, global energy-related CO2 emissions increased by 0.9%, or 321 Mt, hitting a new high of more than 36.8 Gt. Following two years of unusual oscillations in energy use and emissions, exacerbated in part by the Covid-19 pandemic, last year’s increase was substantially slower than six per cent return expected in 2021. Energy combustion emissions climbed by 423 Mt, but industrial process emissions declined by 102 Mt, with road transport accounting for roughly eighty per cent of overall transport emissions. It contributes to traffic congestion, noise pollution, and road accidents, in addition to greenhouse gas emissions. Rapid economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region in recent decades has resulted in increased motorisation and, as a result, increased ownership of two- and four-wheel motor vehicles, particularly in urban areas.

Cities in the Asia-Pacific generally account for approximately 75% of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are expected to rise amidst growing urbanisation. Privately owned two-wheelers and four-wheelers have become the favoured mode of daily commuting in these cities in the absence of an integrated and planned transport options and in the backdrop of rising income levels. This has put a burden on urban transport infrastructure, often resulting that it cannot keep up with the increase in private vehicles.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounts for the majority of the greenhouse gas emissions included by the Kyoto Protocol. Transport carbon dioxide emissions have risen faster than all other industries over the last three decades and are expected to rise even faster in the future. Carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s transport industry climbed by 46% between 2010 and 2022. Over the same time period, emissions from road transport climbed by more than forty per cent in developed countries and exceeding nearly fifty per cent in developing countries.

Currently, developed countries are among the principal contributors to transport emissions. However, the proportion of emissions produced in developing countries is rapidly increasing, particularly in China, India, and Indonesia. Global CO2 emissions from the transport industry are expected to rise by 140% between 2000 and 2050, with developing nations bearing the brunt of the increase. Road travel accounts for the bulk of transport fuel emissions (76%). The most prominent source is light-duty vehicles (LDVs), which are four-wheel vehicles such as cars, sports utility vehicles (SUVs), compact passenger vans (up to 8 seats), and personal pick-up trucks. Air travel accounts for around 12% of total CO2 emissions and is constantly increasing. Various modes of transport contribute to global warming in ways other than direct CO2 emissions, such as upstream CO2 emissions from oil refineries, power needed by electric trains, and increased climatic force of aviation due to contrails and other impacts.

A rapid increase in two-wheeled vehicles is expected in developing countries, particularly China, India, Latin America, and other Asian countries. Two-wheeler fuel consumption is expected to more than double between 2000 and 2050, increasing the proportion of road vehicle fuel consumption attributed to two-wheelers from 2% to 3%.

Fact Sheet – Climate Change

  • The transport industry accounts for roughly one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions.
  • 95% of the world’s transport energy is still derived from fossil fuels.
  • Transport is the leading source of energy-related emissions in 45% of countries and the second greatest source in the remaining countries.
  • Transport CO2 increased in all regions except Europe, which declined by 2% between 2000 and 2019.
  • The fastest growth rates were seen in developing countries, with Asia being the largest emitter in absolute terms in 2019.
  • The transportation industry was responsible for 57% of global oil demand and 28% of total energy usage and consumption.
  • The Global Fuel Economy Initiative (GFEI) is assisting 40 additional countries in realising the financial and CO2 benefits of better and improved vehicle fuel economy.
  • The Airport Carbon Accreditation Scheme presently has 173 recognised airports throughout the world, including 26 carbon-neutral airports; 36% of air passengers now commute through an Airport Carbon Accredited airport.
  • Between 2010 and 2019, international shipping emissions increased by around 0.85% on a yearly basis. In 2018, the overall GHG emissions from shipping (international, domestic, and fisheries) were close to 3% of the total global figures.
  • In 2018, aviation contributed to around 12% of total CO2 emissions from transportation. Aviation emissions increased at a 2% yearly average between 2000 and 2019, relating to nearly five per cent annual growth in commercial passenger flights. Tourism-related CO2 emissions account for 22% of total emissions.
  • Currently, CO2 emissions from the transportation sector account for around 30% of total CO2 emissions by humans in developed nations and approximately twenty-three per cent emissions worldwide.
  • More than 60 billion tonnes of CO2 might be saved between now and 2050 if battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles account for 60% of all vehicles on the road.
  • The contribution of transport to total national GHG emissions ranges from up to 30% in high-income economies to less than 3% in LDCs.

Railways as an option for reduced carbon emissions: An Overview

Global transportation demand is rapidly increasing. Passenger and freight traffic will more than double by 2050 if current trends continue. Such expansion is a sign of social and economic success, but it comes at the expense of increased energy demand, CO2 emissions, and air pollutants. A higher reliance on rail could reduce such growth. Rail travel is well suited to urban needs in an increasingly urbanised world. High-speed rail can replace short-distance air travel, while conventional and freight rail can also complement and support other forms of transportation to provide efficient mobility. 

The transportation sector accounts for more than half of worldwide oil demand and approximately one-quarter of total CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. As a result, changes in transport are vital and crucial for reaching global energy transitions. Despite the fact that rail is one of the most energy-efficient modes of freight and passenger transport, it is sometimes overlooked in public debate. The rail sector has the potential to deliver significant benefits to both the energy and environmental sectors. Rail can minimise carbon dioxide and local pollutant emissions by diversifying energy sources and offering more efficient mobility.

Future Rail

Future of Rail shall be determined and shaped by how it responds to both expanding transportation demands and rising pressures through competition from alternative modes of transportation. Rising incomes and populations in developing and emerging countries, where cities are expanding at an exponential rate, are expected to drive substantial demand for more efficient, faster, and cleaner transportation, yet the need for speed and flexibility favours vehicle ownership and air travel.

Enhanced income opportunities also drive freight demand growth, where rising incomes have substantially boosted demand for faster delivery of higher-value and lighter goods. The rail industry has significant competitive advantages to leverage to compete for business. However, this will necessitate greater strategic investments in rail infrastructure, increased efforts to improve commercial competitiveness and technical innovation. The future of rail explains, under a base scenario, how the railway system and its energy requirements are expected to evolve through 2050 based on announced policies, rules, and projects.

A more ambitious High Rail Scenario is built on three pillars: minimising costs per passenger-kilometre or tonne-kilometre moved, increasing revenue from rail systems, and ensuring that all modes of transport pay not only for the infrastructure they require but also for the negative impacts they produce. This scenario depicts the extent to which a large shift in passenger and freight travel to rail transport could be realised, highlighting and emphasising the environmental and economical effects as well as policy instruments that could be used.

In 2050, total energy consumption for the rail sector is expected to be approximately 42% more than in the base scenario. Nonetheless, despite the increased activity, rail transport will only account for 4% of overall transport energy consumption by 2050. In all stages, the rail system is heavily electrified, resulting in energy diversification. Rail movement also gets almost totally electrified in all major countries and regions under the base scenario. The exception is North America, where freight diesel is expected to maintain its dominance.

In the High Rail Scenario, passenger rail activity rises to 15 trillion passenger kilometres by 2050. Other modes of public transit, particularly bus travel, shall also be on the rise. This is largely due to the advancement of transport systems that allow for better integration of rail services with other modes of public transport. In the high rail situations, total transport energy consumption shall exceed 3300 Mtoe in 2050. In comparison to the base scenario, this represents a 565 Mtoe reduction in energy demand by 2050. This reduction includes 510 Mtoe of oil or nearly 10 million barrels per day.

Trends in conventional, high-speed, urban and freight rail

Conventional rail covers medium- to long-distance journeys with a top speed under 250 kph, as well as suburban train journeys. The majority of conventional rail networks exist now in North America, Europe, China, Russia, India, and Japan. These regions account for over 90% of global passenger movements on conventional rail, with India leading the way with 39%, followed by China (27%), Japan (11%), and the European Union (9%). However, conventional rail has changed little in these areas during the last few decades.

Conversely, substantial investments in high-speed rail and metros have been made. High-speed rail refers to rail services that travel vast distances between stations at speeds above 250 kph. Metro rail refers to high-frequency, high-capacity urban services that are completely segregated from traffic and are often underground or elevated, whereas light rail refers to tramways and other smaller-capacity, lower-speed urban transport systems, most often at street level.

High-speed rail is an important alternative to aviation, while urban rail is a solution for cities plagued by traffic and pollution. Growth has been especially noticeable in China, which has surpassed all other countries in terms of network length of both forms in less than a decade.

Over the last two decades, freight train activity has steadily increased. It is described as the transportation of products on specially designed goods trains. Today, rail freight movement is concentrated in China and the United States, each accounting for over one-quarter of worldwide rail freight activity, and Russia accounts for one-fifth. The bulk of total freight rail traffic consists of minerals, coal, and agricultural products.


Today, electric trains account for three-quarters of passenger rail transport activity, up from 60% in 2000; the rail sector is the only mode of transport that is widely electrified today. Because of its dependency on electricity, the rail sector is the most energy-diversified source of transportation. Europe, Japan, and Russia have the highest percentage of electric train activity, whereas North and South America continue to rely mainly on diesel. In almost all regions, passenger rail is notably more electrified than freight rail, and regions with greater emphasis on urban rail and high-speed rail have the highest share of passenger kilometres served by electricity.

Indian Context

The railway system in India has been important to the country’s growth, carrying people and goods throughout its enormous territory, integrating markets, and connecting communities. Rail passenger travel in India has expanded over 200% since 2000, while freight traffic has increased by nearly one hundred fifty per cent; nonetheless, India’s latent demand for mobility remains enormous. For example, each Indian drives roughly three kilometres per day over privately owned road vehicles, compared to 17.5 kilometres in Europe. In fact, rail activity in India is expected to grow faster than in any other country.

Today, India’s conventional rail system has a total route length of over 68000 km, divided between passenger and freight transportation. There are metro systems in 20 Indian cities, with approximately 859 km of track in operation and an additional 980 km of track under construction in 27 cities. In the coming years, 600 kilometres of new metro lines are planned. For the time being, India lacks high-speed rail. However, in 2015, India and Japan signed a deal to build a high-speed rail line between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, which is scheduled to open in 2024. Seven additional high-speed lines are being considered. They would connect the four cities that make up the Golden Quadrilateral (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai), as well as other intermediate cities, once completed.

Efficient Mode

Rail is one of the most energy-efficient forms of freight and passenger transport; while it transports 8% of worldwide passengers and 7% of global freight, it accounts for only 2% of overall transport energy consumption. Direct CO2 emissions from rail are not expected to rise above 100 Mt CO2 after their peak in 2019. Direct CO2 emissions from diesel rail operations increased by less than 1% per year on average during the last two decades (electric rail, which accounts for over 80% of passenger train activity and half of freight movements, emits no direct CO2 emissions). To meet the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, emissions must fall by around 6% per year, a target that necessitates electrifying diesel operations wherever possible, as well as blending biodiesel and implementing a variety of other efficiency measures.

Urban Rail Networks: Metros & Light Rail

Metro and light rail networks have much lower emissions than other motorised urban transport modes, particularly private cars. Rail emissions per passenger km are currently around one-sixth of those of air transport as measured on a ‘well-to-wheels’ (wing/wake) basis. Electric passenger rail emits significantly less pollution, especially when fuelled by renewables or nuclear energy. Some of the important considerations related to augment rail networks globally, especially high-speed rail corridors, are to support Net Zero Scenario and effectively manage climate change with a fast-transforming urban mobility landscape.

  • Push and Pull policies and modal shifting: Making rail viable and easier to use necessitates not only a focus and concentration on trains and tracks but also traffic-control measures. Fiscal measures such as congestion charges and pollution taxes, which are primarily applied to automobiles and airlines and are based on transportation network use and externalities, can directly boost rail’s competitiveness. Internalising the environmental and social externalities of aviation, for example, through a tax on aviation fuels, would help level the playing field and make high-speed rail more cost-competitive for long-distance travel. Adopting ‘push’ and ‘pull’ policies, including fiscal tools, to boost rail competitiveness and induce modal change appears to be a modern-day requirement.
  • Further, electrify, improve efficiency and invest in digital technologies: The cost of investing in rail infrastructure is high. High passenger or freight throughput is required for a rail construction project to be profitable. The adoption of digital technologies could improve train operations and connect rail more thoroughly with other modes of transportation, making rail more accessible, flexible, convenient, and desirable. As a result, digital technologies are vital for increasing throughput and improving operational and energy efficiency, helping to lower costs and increase revenues.
  • Upgrade rolling stock, raise efficiency and enhance digital technologies: Traditional rail companies and organisations will need to modernise its rolling stock and electrify services further, beginning with the busiest routes. Energy efficiency techniques would lessen environmental implications while also improving economic viability. 
  • Enhance rail networks through integrated planning: Rail development funding does not have to be solely dependent on taxation. Capturing the benefits of land value can also help to offset high capital investment costs. For example, network developers may gain from higher land values by developing and undertaking high-margin residential and commercial structure and projects near railway nodes and stations. Furthermore, financial and regulatory systems should incentivise rail organisations and institutions to seek out sustainable financing options such as green bonds. 
  • High Passenger Throughout on Urban Rail: Policies that encourage high-density living and incorporate mobility into urban development planning can assist urban rail networks in achieving high passenger throughput. Commuting times can be reduced by using an integrated transit solution. Furthermore, land use planning and design should accommodate and account for city logistics by including strategically placed multi-modal hubs. These should connect rail and freight, as well as cycling infrastructure and zero-emission fleets. Transit-oriented development has the potential to integrate urban rail with bus networks, as well as pedestrian and cycling pathways.
  • Regional Policies, cost mitigation: Regional strategies prioritise rail modernisation and expansion, as well as digitalisation and low-carbon technologies: Several recent policies and initiatives have set aside and provisioned for public funds to expand railway infrastructure, modernise fleets, and improve digital operations (including software and equipment). Meanwhile, a portion of the cash collected by fuel taxes, parking fees, road pricing, and tolls can be spent in rail infrastructure, which can stimulate a modal shift by making private vehicle use lesser appealing and desirable. Similarly, proceeds from transport taxes (such as automobile purchase and registration fees) might be utilised and allocated for train enhancements and extensions. 


(i) Countries around the world, particularly in Europe, are planning significant investments in rail transit to make it more desirable to travellers, particularly over short-haul flights. Expansion and utilisation of rail networks will be vital for achieving emission reductions and moving towards the Net Zero Scenario. Rail is the least polluting means of passenger transport; extending it under the Net Zero Scenario will help cut overall emissions.

(ii) In the Net Zero Scenario, electric train expansion has been increasing and enhancing, particularly in the replacement of diesel-powered freight trains. The overall final energy mix of rail is now divided almost equally between diesel and electricity, with diesel use slightly greater than electricity in 2021. In the Net Zero Scenario, electricity accounts for approximately two-thirds of total final energy demand by 2030, with diesel still accounting for roughly a quarter and biodiesel accounting for the remainder, with low penetration of hydrogen. Diesel, in particular, plays a substantially larger role in freight rail, accounting for around two-thirds of total energy consumption worldwide in 2021. In the Net Zero Scenario, continued progress on freight electrification will reduce this proportion to roughly 40% by 2030.

(iii) Over one-quarter of the world’s operating metro networks began running in the past five years. The world’s operating metro systems cover over twenty-thousand Kilometers. More than one-quarter of these were put into operation in 2017-2021, and nearly eighty per cent of these new metro lines were built in Chinese cities. The picture for light rail, which has lower capacities and speeds, is similar, if less stark: 10% of operating lines were put in place in the same five years, with just under half of them in China. The resulting efficiency of urban mobility in China results in far lower per-capita transport emissions than in cities of the rich world that are not served by metro, and can help China realise its net zero CO2 emission commitments.

(iv) The most effective way to reduce flying over short and medium distances is to expand high-speed rail networks. Over 25 countries have built high-speed rail networks totalling over 45000 kilometres of track. China now has more than 60 per cent of the world’s track length, with a goal of having 38000 km operational by 2025. According to the Net Zero Scenario, high-speed rail activities need to rise to nearly sixty per cent by 2030.

(v) Hydrogen projects are on the rise, verifying and cementing the fuel position as an essential and key component in the broader energy shift. Demonstration projects in the Netherlands and Japan aim to examine the efficiency and viability of hydrogen as an alternative to diesel rail lines with poor utilisation and as a low-carbon fuel for rail in particular activities, including conventional (intercity) passenger and freight trains. Proponents of fuel cell trains claim and point to their ability and potential to travel long distances (up to 1000 km at a top speed of 140 km/h) without refilling. They also indicate the possibility of quick refilling times.

(vi) Germany just started operating 14 hydrogen trains on a 100-kilometre track in the state of Lower Saxony for passenger transportation recently. Alstom, the train manufacturer, has delivered the first of a larger order of 41 trains. Hydrogen projects have frequently been grouped and clustered among advanced economies, which have more financial means and resources to invest in innovative and breakthrough technologies. This year has also seen various rising and developing economies engage in hydrogen rail projects, most notably India’s 89-kilometre-long Sonipat-Jind link. 

(vii) Night rail services can also help increase network throughput, minimising the per-passenger cost of railway operations. Renewed interest has resulted in an expansion of night rail links, suggesting that this mode of transport is gaining popularity and contending with aviation for short- and medium-distance trips. Several new night routes have opened in Europe.


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