The Future of Rail

Opportunities for energy and the environment

About this report

Global demand for transport is growing fast. Given present trends, passenger and freight activity will more than double by 2050. Such growth is a token of social and economic progress, but it carries with it greater energy demand and increased CO2 emissions and atmospheric pollutants. A greater reliance on rail has the potential to cut that growth. In a world becoming ever more urbanised, rail travel is well matched to urban needs. High-speed rail can serve as an alternative to short-distance air travel, and conventional and freight rail can complement other transport modes to provide efficient mobility. This report discusses what can be done and how on a global scale, with a special focus on the needs and opportunities in India.

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.

Key findings

Efficient mode

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.


Today, three-quarters of passenger rail transport activity takes place on electric trains, which is an increase from 60% in 2000 - the rail sector is the only mode of of transport that is widely electrified today. This reliance on electricity means that the rail sector is the most energy diverse mode of transport.

Passenger rail transport activity by fuel type, 1995-2016


The regions with the highest share of electric train activity are Europe, Japan and Russia, while North and South America still rely heavily on diesel. Passenger rail is significantly more electrified than freight in almost all regions, and regions with higher reliance on urban rail and high-speed rail are those with the largest share of passenger-kilometres served by electricity.

Share of activity on electric trains for selected countries and regions, 1995-2016


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.


Most conventional rail networks today are located in North America, Europe, China, Russia, India, and Japan. These regions make up about 90% of global passenger movements on conventional rail with India leading at 39%, followed by China at 27%, Japan at 11% and the European Union at 9%. However conventional rail has shown little change across these regions over the past decades.

Conventional rail track length in selected regions, 1995-2016


In contrast, significant investments have been made in high-speed rail and metros. 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 and light rail to tramways and other lower capacity, lower speed urban transport systems, most often at street level.


High-speed rail provides an important alternative to aviation while urban rail provides a solution to cities impacted by congestion and air pollution. Growth has been most notable in China, which has overtaken all other countries in terms of network length of both types within a single decade.

Urban and high-speed track length in selected regions, 1995-2016


Freight rail activity has risen steadily over the past twenty years. It is defined as the transport of goods on dedicated freight trains.


Today movement of freight by rail is concentrated in China and the United States, each of which accounts for about one-quarter of global rail freight activity, and Russia, which accounts for one-fifth. Minerals, coal and agricultural products account for the bulk of total freight rail activity.

Shares of materials transported by freight railways worldwide, 2016


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.

Projected rail energy demand growth in selected regions by scenario, 2017-2050


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.

Energy demand from rail in selected regions and by technology in a base scenario


Passenger rail activity increases in the High Rail Scenario to 15 trillion passenger-kilometres in 2050. Other public transport activities also increase, particularly travel by bus. This is in large part due to the development of transport systems that allow for better integration of rail services with other public transport options.

Change in passenger activity in the High Rail Scenario relative to a base scenario, 2020-2050


Total transport energy demand in the High Rail Scenario reaches 3300 Mtoe in 2050. Compared to the Base Scenario, this is a reduction of 565 Mtoe in energy demand by 2050. Out of this reduction, 510 Mtoe is oil — or approximately 10 million barrels per day.

Change in energy demand in the High Rail Scenario relative to a base scenario


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.