July 14, 2024

Green signals

Roger Williams explores how well railways and their caterers are delivering on sustainability

Compared with other modes of transport, rail has a clear advantage when it comes to sustainability but that doesn’t mean train operators and their suppliers are resting on their laurels.

Back in motion

Railway caterers, badly affected by the pandemic, lost on average 60% of revenues, totalling over £1billion – devastating for an industry that has very low margins and high operating costs. Even now, many are only operating at 60-70% capacity.

Reductions in expenditure curtailed progress of sustainability projects but now more trains are being reintroduced and the wheels of the industry are finally turning again. 

There’s also a realisation that sustainability and cost efficiency are not mutually exclusive, Rail colleagues at all levels clearly understand their role in improving efficiency and sustainability and are willing to speed up change. 

Lowest carbon emissions

The attention of governments and the public on carbon emissions from travel gives rail an advantage with its exceptionally low emissions per passenger kilometre.

According to SJ (Sweden), the carbon footprint for its intercity trains is only 0.0024 grams per pax/km. Comparatively, according to figures from the Swedish Transport Agency, the average car produces 93 grams of CO2/passenger km with one passenger on board while a report by SAS reveals an aircraft produces 95 grams of CO2/passenger km.

Letting the train take the strain

These figures give an insight into why rail’s drive towards new sustainable catering technology has been slower than with airlines. One example of this is that caterers don’t need to differentiate between F&B loading weights as the variance in train power is negligible, whereas for a plane the weight of the catering load is a crucial factor. 

Stock can also be left onboard to save the constant loading, stripping off and reloading transportation and recycling that airline modular systems require. Instead, trains simply top up quantities from platform-side stores, saving a significant amount of energy, equipment, staff time and reducing stock-outs. 

Food waste priority

Food waste is the top consideration for making a change for better onboard sustainability. Trains can last for a whole day (or even days) with only one main stock delivery. However, fresh food waste is a problem when refrigeration power is lost in turnarounds.

Walk-on / walk-off services also mean caterers must guess food quantities. Add in last-minute train changes and very short turnarounds and food waste becomes significant.

Advance data revolution

Increasing in-ticket meal reservations, as used by Eurostar and Thalys, means caterers can match food supplies to customer bookings; while incentivising customers to pre-order can avoid any food waste at all.

RG (Rail Gourmet) with new UK train operator LUMO, has developed this concept and it could revolutionise rail catering. Customers booking tickets on LUMO’s website can pre-order food from one of SSP’s station outlets for delivery to their train. It’s the railway’s version of Deliveroo!

With a huge choice of quality products from M&S’ Simply Food, The Pasty Shop and Upper Crust, the customer’s choice is much wider than could ever be offered onboard a train. 

Different from onboard apps, there is no waste from pre-loading guesswork and other railways may soon see this dynamic approach being part of their sustainability solutions.

Local suppliers

Sourcing products locally is also on trend. In Switzerland, Elvetino uses only Swiss meat and dairy while breads and pastries come directly from local bakeries. Bigger vegan and vegetarian ranges encourage customers towards food choices better for the environment. Importantly for local growers, five of Elvetino’s wines are Swiss, with three from the excellent Cave de Genève. 

In Austria, on OBB, the DoN Group identifies all of its Austrian produced meat, eggs and dairy using the “Good to know” magnifying glass symbol of the Austrian Chamber of Agriculture. Its vegetarian dishes all use local ingredients, whilst the star of the show is the Apricot Schnapps by Bauer, a traditional Austrian brewer founded in Graz in 1920. “Prost” everyone!

Bistros on Sweden’s SJ trains include organic dishes from Kalf & Hansen, ensuring only seasonal ingredients from local producers, whilst JLV in the Czech Republic and VR in Finland are similar – both highlighting some of the great traditional dishes of their countries, such as the wonderful Alder Smoked Rainbow Trout, a classic Finnish dish.

Elsewhere, the UK’s three main intercity operators target an even narrower supply-chain, choosing products often from within 10 miles of their route.

LNER’s famous breakfast includes traditional hand-made Lincolnshire Sausages and Yorkshire Bacon, while later in the day they serve the regional Beef and Newcastle Brown Ale stew. To finish off, there’s local Rutland Red and Northumberland Original cheese, served with apricot and ginger chutney made by The Fruity Kitchen in York.

Helpfully, Avanti West Coast provides a map in its First-Class menus of the local products and suppliers used, whilst GWR focuses its Pullman dining offer on West Country produce, all helping to promote local artisan and sustainable suppliers to a wider audience. These sustainable initiatives become a strong marketing tool. 

Moving away from landfill

Other priorities gaining traction include caterer initiatives to improve reuse and recycling, eliminating single use plastics and reducing, changing or eliminating packaging – all designed to minimise landfill. 

Replacing some items that were previously “disposable” with multi-use rotable or crockery requires investment and cost seems the biggest barrier to change. But these are possibilities, as well as the use of more compostable materials. Local composting may not be a practical solution at stations where catering waste is often bulked with other multiple user waste. The better answer is to avoid landfill in the first place.

Some operators are reducing paper cup usage by offering discounts for customers who bring refillable cups. Elevetino, for example, offers this service. It also provides sustainable non-plastic takeaway cutlery and packaging. 

Removing plastic entirely from a catered train was first achieved by Eurostar and is now a common objective. GWR, for example, has changed from plastic bottles to tins for carbonates, while others are using thinner non-virgin plastic from 100% recycled sources. Thankfully, it seems no-one has plastic stirrers anymore either!

Building sustainable communities

Alongside these measures, railways are increasingly focused on local community sustainability. Initiatives include employment schemes, supporting charities and working with rehabilitation organisations. 

During the pandemic, Avanti West Coast distributed nearly £93,000 worth of food to local charities. A main beneficiary was OLIO, the community free food sharing app. As well as reducing the environmental impact of food waste OLIO prevented 38,000kg of CO2 being released into the atmosphere, the equivalent to saving 130,000 car miles.

Elsewhere, LNER’s £500,000 Customer and Community Investment Fund supports 17 local charities, including action against domestic abuse, assisting mental health work and employability skills amongst marginalised groups.

Looking to the future

Encouraging the next generation of train users is vital. Kids love restaurant cars and in Finland there is a proper Kids’ Menu and even a separate play area next to the restaurant coach just for them – this is something other railways could learn from if they really want to entice families away from their cars.

Overall, rail operators and their onboard catering partners are improving sustainability and the range of initiatives is encouraging. The green signals of change are everywhere now but we must not take our foot off the pedal. There’s still more work to be done. 

Contact roger@thecateringexplorer.com or Roger Williams, RVM on LinkedIn for more insight