The Future of Rail

Opportunities for energy and the environment

“The rail sector can provide substantial benefits for the energy sector as well as for the environment. By diversifying energy sources and providing more efficient mobility, rail can lower transport energy use and reduce carbon dioxide and local pollutant emissions.”
Dr Fatih Birol, Executive Director, IEA


The transport sector is responsible for more than half of global oil demand and around one-quarter of global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Therefore changes in transportation are fundamental to achieving energy transitions globally. Yet while rail is among the most energy efficient modes of transport for freight and passengers, it is often neglected in public debate. 

The Future of Rail examines how the role of rail in global transport might be elevated as a means to reduce the energy use and environmental impacts associated with transport.

Download report Read press release

Key findings from The Future of Rail


Rail is among the most energy efficient modes of transport for freight and passengers - while the rail sector carries 8% of the world’s passengers and 7% of global freight transport, it represents only 2% of total transport energy demand.

	BlankLeft	BlankRight	Large cars	Aviation	Cars	Buses and minibuses	2 & 3 wheelers	Rail	Medium trucks	Heavy trucks	Rail	Shipping	AverageLeft	AverageRight
Large Cars	24.34		62.17										64.72	
Aviation	24.84			48.23									42.98	
Cars	19.84				53.27								42.96	
Buses and minibuses	8.31					18.79							14.08	
2 & 3 wheelers	8.35						10.1						10.67	
Rail	1.48							17.22					4.1	
Medium trucks		15.3							33.25					30.5
Heavy trucks		18.56								18.68				25.38
Rail		2.08									9.87			3.49
Shipping		1.96										1.99		2.47
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	Conventional diesel	Conventional electric	Urban (electric)	High-speed rail (electric)
1995	0.90309408	0.897632013	0.250353589	0.085645819
2000	0.975883475	1.003991199	0.274619407	0.110435647
2005	1.053442879	1.216159487	0.314171426	0.141056703
2010	1.205269703	1.576558342	0.349975715	0.252451193
2016	1.225381149	1.866178884	0.413797584	0.535531959
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	North America	Europe	Japan	Korea	Russia	China	India	South America	Africa
1995	69.47335525	73.55424585	85.01260766	48.26225195	79.11325765	21.33257398	43.14495788	42.49326518	19.09160711
2000	72.71372669	75.99154506	96.96435132	52.55483855	81.28636288	30.52896929	43.77836658	40.52446394	21.07971479
2005	74.9385412	78.59493533	96.55286147	72.39467716	82.60189331	43.34993536	46.38373694	39.4430939	22.83064054
2010	74.79537532	79.6476784	96.29236707	80.91839874	83.3118982	60.72684565	49.80634303	47.93265109	24.33391462
2016	75.58647912	80.40475034	96.52441248	90.18679648	85.91802756	74.64898544	53.51547183	49.48304065	28.00734241
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Trends in conventional, high-speed, urban and freight rail

  • Conventional rail covers medium- to long-distance journeys with a maximum speed under 250 kph and suburban train journeys

  • High-speed rail is defined as rail services over long distances between stations, operating at a maximum speed above 250 kph

  • Metro rail refers to high-frequency, high capacity urban services which are fully separated from traffic, often underground or elevated

  • Light rail refers to tramways and other lower capacity, lower speed urban transport systems, most often at street level

  • Freight rail is defined as the transport of goods on dedicated freight trains


	Conventional rail
	627.4280254
	587.5179329
	611.976
	324.0259314
	302.7882137
	327.7230883
	83.9904
	113.2320899
	150.7746
	124.4550845
	121.869
	123.384
	73.82605197
	92.90954666
	92.081
	25.11367312
	24.53682895
	23.5121
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	Light rail	Metro rail	High-speed rail
	1.4402	3.46766	0
	2.3778	3.54846	0
	3.27144	3.64246	0
	9.0009024	5.29624	4.892
	10.3920986	5.898366	7.646
	11.82146	6.17964	15.388
	0.1313	2.9192	0
	0.1313	4.7991	0
	0.50872	9.21434	41.3014
	0.3576	1.006	0
	0.3576	1.038	0
	0.3648	1.161	0
	0	0.056	0
	0	0.4626	0
	0	0.885574	0
	0.51944	3.7188	3.068
	0.51944	3.9552	3.75
	0.55404	4.0046	4.928
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	Percentage
Coal, crude petroleum, natural gas	28.46025189
Metal ores and other mining products	16.82581616
Mineral products 	9.080682235
Coke and refined petroleum products	8.255010962
Agriculture, hunting, and forestry products 	6.646320408
Chemicals	6.536312142
Basic metals	5.11934643
Other 	19.06270992
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Looking to the future


The future of rail will be determined by how it responds to both rising transport demand and rising pressure from competing transport modes

Rising incomes and populations in developing and emerging economies, where cities are growing exponentially, are set to lead to strong demand for more efficient, faster and cleaner transportation transport, but the need for speed and flexibility tend to favour car ownership and air travel.

Rising incomes also drive demand growth in freight, where higher incomes, have sharply increased demand for rapid delivery of higher value and lighter goods. The rail sector has important advantages to exploit in competing for business, but this will require additional strategic investments in rail infrastructure, further efforts to improve commercial competitiveness, and technological innovation.

The Future of Rail outlines in a Base Scenario how the railway system and its energy needs are projected to evolve to 2050 on the basis of announced policies, regulations and projects.

A more ambitious High Rail Scenario rests on three main pillars: minimising costs per passenger-kilometre or tonne-kilometre moved, maximising revenues from rail systems, and ensuring that all forms of transport pay not only for the use of the infrastructure they need, but also for the adverse impacts they generate. This scenario shows the extent to which a significant shift of passengers and goods to rail transport could be achieved, highlighting environmental and financial implications and the policy instruments which might be deployed.

Total energy demand for the rail sector in 2050 is around 42% more than in the Base Scenario. Yet despite increases in activity, rail transport still accounts for only 4% of total transport energy demand in 2050. In both of the scenarios the rail sector experiences strong electrification, and therefore energy diversification.

	2017	2050 Base Scenario	2050 High Rail Scenario
China	12.3427512	24.28961456	31.96199061
North America	15.03006682	16.93388303	23.32140815
India	3.985336461	9.170849372	13.48103368
Europe	6.997411871	9.162057357	11.90278329
Russia	5.561255511	7.956674943	8.806372294
Japan	2.920549896	2.404284147	3.065810933

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Under the base scenario, rail transport becomes almost entirely electrified in all major countries and regions. The exception is North America, where it's projected that the dominance of freight diesel will continue.

	Freight diesel	Freight electric	Urban (electric)	High speed (electric)	Conventional diesel	Conventional electric
	13.67548	0.00000	0.63284	0.00000	0.26366	0.05063
	14.64136	0.00000	0.73463	0.08756	0.07232	0.03077
	15.84345	0.00000	0.89765	0.13901	0.02573	0.02804
	3.05723	4.31992	1.18939	1.44827	0.26115	0.63098
	0.81790	9.09408	3.23945	3.33148	0.17277	0.84177
	0.06529	13.18504	3.65360	4.58772	0.00000	1.19872
	0.83322	1.06501	1.00879	0.48939	1.05311	2.61728
	0.83745	1.24075	1.28187	0.80256	0.71562	3.44470
	0.83201	1.48619	1.65832	0.94336	0.00000	5.24374
	1.58057	3.12178	0.13546	0.00000	0.23268	0.49216
	0.97450	4.21991	0.19137	0.00000	0.15129	0.61535
	0.12089	6.66719	0.23707	0.00000	0.00000	0.93152
	0.03182	0.08173	0.48522	0.29726	0.13938	1.88918
	0.03494	0.12070	0.48672	0.36797	0.06874	1.65235
	0.02866	0.17900	0.52868	0.47652	0.00000	1.19095
	1.23065	1.16437	0.08034	0.00000	0.94678	0.63321
	0.00000	2.48664	0.18616	0.04764	0.21870	1.68060
	0.00000	3.81225	0.53870	0.04998	0.16716	3.89587
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	Cars	Two/three-wheelers	Buses and minibuses	Rail	Aviation	Total
2020	-0.543337585	-0.170529834	0.098311355	0.179717318	-0.014317829	-0.450156574
2025	-1.533113464	-0.494331404	0.432020035	0.596464102	-0.106088522	-1.105049253
2030	-3.10124598	-0.708586304	0.703288553	1.508231559	-0.260214647	-1.858526819
2035	-4.948498461	-0.926466311	1.38320787	2.40812764	-0.472260003	-2.555889264
2040	-6.806556119	-1.496245385	1.958727545	3.406984264	-0.701678321	-3.638768015
2045	-8.745916348	-2.184613272	2.488977122	4.482762857	-0.984357261	-4.9431469
2050	-10.0708781	-2.785467566	2.926958056	5.681264583	-1.317511567	-5.565634592
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	Oil	Gas	Electricity	Biofuels	Others
2030	-193.381839	-10.75351398	19.97377537	-9.582518629	-2.080525227
2050	-520.1418898	-29.91311197	54.98263744	-54.78000286	-32.91847898
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Focus on India


India’s railway system has played a fundamental role in the country’s development, transporting people and goods throughout its vast territory, integrating markets and connecting communities.

Rail passenger traffic in India has increased by almost 200% since 2000 and freight traffic by 150%, yet latent demand for mobility in India remains huge. For example, on average, each Indian travels about 3 kilometres per day by privately owned road vehicle, compared to 17.5 kilometres in Europe. In fact, rail activity in India is set to grow more than any other country.

Today, the conventional rail system in India comprises a total route length of almost 68000 km, shared between passenger and freight transport. Metro systems exist in 10 Indian cities, with about 515 km of track in operation and an additional 620 km of metro rail under construction. A further 600 km of metro lines are planned for the next few years.

For now, India does not have any high-speed rail. However, in 2015 India and Japan signed an agreement to develop a high-speed rail line connecting the cities of Ahmedabad and Mumbai, to come into operation in 2023.

Seven other high-speed lines are currently under consideration. Once completed, they would connect the four cities that constitute the Golden Quadrilateral (Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai) plus other intermediate cities.