Network Rail partners with water firms to tackle chemical contamination

A collective environmental stewardship programme from Network Rail and several of the UK's largest water companies is now protecting more than 600 vulnerable drinking water sources from herbicides, the rail infrastructure manager has announced.

Network Rail partners with water firms to tackle chemical contamination

The collaborative project has seen Network Rail purchase eight 'spray trains'

After launching a scheme to ensure that chemical pollutants did not enter waterways across Greater London and the Thames Valley in 1990, Network Rail has this week expanded the scheme to cover all water companies across England and Wales.

Under the programme, eight ‘spray trains’ are sent along hundreds of miles of track every night, distributing “eco-friendly” herbicides and de-icers in order to keep tracks clear of weeds and ice.

This process, National Rail claims, is “essential” for ensuring that activities such as inspections and construction can be carried out safely across its 50,000-hectare estate.

The scheme has received backing from Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales as well as Water UK, the industry body for water utilities, which represents 29 of the UK’s largest firms in this sector.

Water UK member Thames Water claims it was one of the first water companies to work with Network Rail’s predecessors to ensure the chemicals used to prevent track blockages did not pollute waterways, which often run parallel to rail lines.

Traditional chemical mixtures, the water utility claims, would require removal using expensive and energy-intensive advanced treatment processes if they reached drinking water sources.

“We’ve worked closely with Network Rail to influence the types of herbicides they use and how they’re applied so they are less likely to contaminate water, and we’re delighted with the results,” Thames Water’s scientific services manager Dinah Hillier said.

“The spray train team are really committed to this agreement and understand the important role they have in helping to protect water before it goes through our treatment process and out of taps at home. It’s great to see how Network Rail has become guardians of all our water sources too.”

The update comes after the number of corporates investing in water security was found to have reached “record levels” by CDP, which discovered that more than $23bn was invested in projects like desalination plants, irrigation systems and drought resistance in 2017. 

Despite mounting business investments, this figure still falls well short of the $6.4trn that the UN estimates is required to combat water scarcity by 2030.

Investment in stewardship

The update from Network Rail and Thames Water comes at a time when the water utility is planning to invest an additional £1.1bn in its environmental stewardship activities between 2020 and 2025.

Part of this funding will be used to create a “multi-pronged” Smarter Water Catchments initiative, which aims to improve drinking water quality across six water catchments in London and the South East.

Under the programme, catchment management procedures will be updated to better account for factors such as flood risk, pollution and water security. Thames Water expects this funding to help it achieve an 18% reduction in pollution across its entire network.

Another chunk will be invested in the installation of onsite renewable arrays, as Thames Water strives to generate renewable energy to power the equivalent of 115,000 homes by 2025. The firm currently meets around 20% of its energy demands with onsite generation, and sources the remainder of its electricity from renewable sources through an agreement with Haven Power.

Sarah George

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