A low-carbon future for India’s railways

Much has been made of the dawn of the age of electric vehicles, and the role that decarbonising passenger transport will play in meeting climate targets set out by the Paris Agreement. But in countries like India, rail transport still continues to play a central role in moving people and goods.

India has the highest passenger-rail activity in the world, reaching over 1 trillion passenger-kilometres in 2013 – seven times than in 1975. Freight activity has also expanded more than fivefold over the past 40 years. However this rapid growth of rail has also led to a rise in carbon emissions because of the sector’s reliance on diesel. About 10% of all CO2 emissions in India’s transportation sector come from railroads, which accounts for about 13% of all passenger travel and a third of freight transport.

IEA analysis developed in cooperation with the International Union of Railways has shown that rail transportation offers a more sustainable alternative to most other modes of transport both in terms of energy use and carbon emissions, and will continue to do so in the next decades.

Part of this is to the result of rising electrification. The use of coal, which powered locomotives for decades, has fallen dramatically since the late 20th century. In 2013, more than half of the rail sector ran on oil and a third on electricity. The story in India has been similar, with oil powering two thirds of rail activity, and electricity accounting for one third.

Given this promising role for rail in providing lower-carbon intensive transport for passengers and freight, a fifth of all government pledges to the Paris Agreement (known as Nationally Determined Contributions) include measures for carbon reductions in the railway sector. This is particularly important since a growing share of electricity in the rail sector comes from renewable sources. In 2013, that figure was around 9%.

India plans to increase the share of railways in total land-based transportation from 36% to 45% by 2030. It is also developing a set of dedicated freight corridors across the country. In the first phase, two corridors are being built: Mumbai-Delhi in the west, and Ludhiana-Dankuni in the east. These freight corridors are expected to reduce carbon emissions by about 450 million tonnes over 30 years. Indian Railways is also installing solar power on its land and on its coaches.

Globally, the rail sector is one of the few that is on track to meet global goals to limit temperatures from rising more than 2 degree Celsius. With strong, achievable targets and performance monitoring, the rail sector can be a model for sustainable transport in a more efficient, low-carbon future.