Southern Railway sets out platform for smarter resource efficiency

One of the UK's leading train operators is looking to forge stronger networks in its sustainable ambitions, to leave a lasting legacy both on and off the tracks. Maxine Perella reports

Southern Railway runs more trains than any other UK commuter operator with more than 2,300 services planned every weekday, according to the company’s 2012 sustainability report. In an industry where operational performance is paramount and closely scrutinised, trying to engineer environmental excellence into this equation is a tough job – but one woman is on a mission to do this and already making impressive headway down the tracks.

Sandra Norval is Southern’s environment manager – she joined the rail operator at an opportune time two years ago, when its environmental strategy was due for review. Immediately she realised that it needed fire in the belly; to move away from merely being compliant and become more ambitious in its legacy aims. She set about drafting up a new sustainability plan based on the recognised ‘three pillars’ approach – environmental, social equity and economic – and presented it to the board. Buy-in was virtually immediate.

Rail presents some unique challenges in terms of sustainability, such as the complexity of what a train operator has control over. For instance, Southern reports to the Department of Transport due to the franchise arrangement, and within this contract certain external parameters and objectives are set. Add to this the various governing bodies such as the Office of Rail Regulation and Rail Safety & Standards board, and what Norval calls “inherited waste” from commuters and tenants.

While acknowledging that these are constraining factors “to a degree”, Norval says she is always up for a challenge. “I don’t think of them as barriers,” she smiles. “We are trying to standardise our approach and ethics, we want to leave an environmental legacy that goes beyond the length of the franchise. This means looking at far-reaching impacts such as more sustainable travel within the wider community, network biodiversity and thinking more creatively about how we handle our waste.”

Waste is one area where’s Norval’s influence has made a noticeable difference. In its report to the Department for Transport last year, Southern reported an average 70% recycling rate for mixed inert non-hazardous waste across the business, against a 2008/9 baseline. But zero waste is where Norval wants to be and she has demonstrated it can done. One of Southern’s busiest stations, East Croydon, has shot from a zero to 99.7% landfill diversion rate in just six months. The project, which commenced in January this year, has now set a clear benchmark for other stations.

Norval puts its success down to staff empowerment. “I have done a lot of one-to-one work with station managers, to engage them on important issues like this. The East Croydon zero waste project was led by the station manager there – he wanted to deepen his understanding of where waste was coming from, he then coordinated everyone who needed to be involved to address it,” she explains.

Southern is also building up its team of ACEs (Area Champions for the Environment) tasked with helping to develop specific projects and spreading the message to other employees. Norval says this is one of the priorities for the company over the next 12 months – she has developed a personal development pyramid for the ACEs to give them more of a united feel and brand identity.

“They are already talking more to each other and becoming more like partners. I call it the ripple effect which will result in a melting pot of ideas. We have to make sure we capture that learning,” she maintains.

Returning to the issue of “inherited waste”, Norval is keen to drill down on the detail. She will be writing a dissertation on the subject for an MBA she is currently studying for, which will involve mapping waste flows through Southern’s operations as well as examining how other key stakeholders such as suppliers and Network Rail deal with materials. “I want to study how we inherit this waste, how it ends up as being our problem, and look at wider issues such as how we can influence the procurement process and our supply chains,” she explains.

She adds: “We are looking to move waste up the hierarchy, but we are kind of in a tricky position at the moment because it’s inherited waste. This is the vast majority of our waste, the biggest volume, so it’s working out where our boundaries are and how we can break through them by collaboration. That’s our next step and it’s written into our strategy.”

The idea of shared value and collaboration is one close to Norval’s heart – she is also organising an event for local businesses in West Sussex to try and foster a sense of greater purpose around sustainability and issues such as the circular economy. She reasons that if businesses are encouraged to think about more carbon-conscious travel planning, such as taking the train to appointments, it should not only encourage a modal shift within the community, but benefit Southern’s own environmental agenda too.

Maxine Perella is waste editor of edie

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie