Greta Thunberg has been described as a “rock star” for her climate campaign, but in one crucial way she’s very different from other megastars who have spoken out about the planet’s plight. Whereas many rock stars are happy to address governments and rallies about global warming before climbing into a helicopter or private jet for the trip home, Greta undertook her European tour entirely by train.

But this wasn’t just a case of the 16-year old protestor making a point. Greta was tapping into a Swedish phenomenon known as flygskam or “flight shame”. The effects of this movement are already being felt: between late 2018 and early 2019, Sweden’s main airport operator recorded a year-on-year fall in passengers for seven consecutive months.

As Greta showed, there are greener ways of travelling. As consumers become more concerned about their impact on the environment and commit to cutting out plastic, food waste and carbon, taking the train presents a compelling alternative to short haul flights for those who wish to ‘walk the walk’ on sustainability.

Trains can get greener

But the rail industry cannot rest on its laurels or remain content with trumpeting its low-carbon credentials without committing itself to further sustainability gains. The hotly-anticipated advent of autonomous vehicles, together with ride-sharing services and other greener methods of personal transportation, means that railways need to pursue sustainability with increased vigour and ingenuity.

This has been recognised in countries such as the UK where, in 2016, the Rail Minister launched a set of Sustainable Development Principles for the industry. Among the principles were a commitment to reduce the railway’s environmental impact and to become ‘carbon smart’ by achieving long-term reductions in greenhouse emissions.

More recently, the UK’s Department for Transport launched its First of a Kind (FOAK) competition which seeks to recognise sustainable innovations in the rail industry. This summer FOAK announced its latest winners which included a drone system which can conduct inspections of rail tracks from above without the need for human intervention, and a trial of hydrogen trains by the Centre for Railway Research at the University of Birmingham.

While Britain was the pioneer of train travel, it’s not necessarily in the vanguard of sustainable rail. Germany already boasts hydrogen-powered trains, while other countries are researching even more ambitious projects such as Elon Musk’s famous Hyperloop initiative.

While the rail industry must, of course, respond to travellers’ demands for greater sustainability, billion-dollar megaprojects like Hyperloop and Shanghai’s Maglev aren’t the only way that railways can bolster their green credentials. Train operators can improve sustainability in other ways that are less likely to garner column inches – but will still make a real difference not just to the planet but to the all-important travel experience.

Making a material difference


When we think about sustainable transport, our first thoughts are usually about carbon or other emissions. But what about the materials used in vehicles – including seat upholstery? The man-made fibres or plastics that you’ll find on the vast majority of train seats are hardly great for the planet: they often contain harmful chemicals, are difficult to recycle and, more often than not, uncomfortable to sit on.

Train operators can enhance their environmental credentials while simultaneously improving passenger comfort by replacing traditional upholstery with materials such as engineered leather. This is a material that uses off-cuts from the traditional leather industry and uses a variety of environmentally-friendly processes to turn it into a high-performance material that is luxurious, durable and incredibly versatile.

The benefits of engineered leather are many. Since three quarters of material from the traditional leather industry goes unused, the engineered version has significant sustainability credentials. What’s more, it is natural, non-porous, easy to clean and hygienic; meanwhile, engineered leather is up to five times more durable than traditional types of upholstery used in the transportation industry, making it a sensible as well as green investment.

There is no silver bullet to sustainability. Just as everyone needs to play their part in cutting energy consumption and plastic waste, so transport operators need to consider a multitude of ways that they can reduce their impact on the planet.

Engineered leather demonstrates that you can travel in comfort while still feeling good about yourself. And, who knows? It might even convince those rock stars to take the train.