Sandra Norval

Thinking of tomorrow

We asked alumna Sandra Norval (MBA, 2014) to share with us an article she wrote for Rail Professional, in which she discusses her work for GTR and her thoughts on the future of sustainable rail travel.

Govia Thameslink Railway, or GTR, is very focused on the railway of tomorrow. For me this makes my role as Head of Environment an exciting one, I came to my new role with a vision for sustainability in railway in which we seek a harmonious relationship with our neighbours, our colleagues and those who would seek to put pressure on our industry. I’ve drawn from my studies on the One Planet MBA with the University of Exeter to balance corporate objectives with a move towards sustainable business.

Preserving resources for future generations is a key element of my work but for a well balanced and sustainable future we must look to the purpose of railway – to connect people with employment and business opportunities, their families, education and leisure. Developing resilient and sustainable communities is critical as we work towards a better future.

But that is a mammoth task in a challenging industry, so how can we do this? Well, actually, I believe the answer is here and now.

The Department for Transport is already embedding expectations into franchise agreements, often making it a clear, but intrinsic, requirement for bids to demonstrate how franchises will become more sustainable through their tenure. Certain things are now simply expected.

The biggest shift, however, will take more time. In my work I often talk about moving beyond ‘tick-box’ exercises. This means using legislation and imposed requirements as a minimum standard and seeking to move beyond these basics to find creative business benefits.

There are many examples of energy efficiency projects, most of which are viable early in a franchise and are an absolute must to consider, but this isn’t where the real change lies. The real change actually lies within people.

Joining Southern railway in the later years of the franchise meant that I had to think creatively. Unable to achieve payback for most projects before the franchise ended I turned to the possibility of creating a culture change by working with our teams.

We already had a team of Area Champions for the Environment (ACEs) who had received basic training and were allocated voluntary work on environment issues alongside their usual roles however, enthusiasm was low. Individuals were encountering challenges with committing time and stepping away from their substantive roles.

It was time for the next stage, so I talked with the team and found out what their motivations were. What was it that drove their desire to work on environmental issues? Of course, every answer was different and that was my key learning point. We needed to empower them, enable them to design their own projects and build their skills for their own futures. Projects varied from small scale composting areas on stations through to working with tenants and contract cleaners to improve waste separation on East Croydon Station and achieve a genuine Zero to Landfill model which could be repeated elsewhere – just 0.6% of waste now goes for incineration, everything else is either composted or recycled.

The ACEs have now identified key interest areas to focus on, with many starting to take formal qualifications to embed environmental management into their career. We have seconded two to the Environment Team to assist with our transition and we have Rail Neighbourhood Officers focusing on fly-tipping as well as facilities experts developing projects to contribute to biodiversity.

For GTR we will be expanding our ACE team, aiming for 100 active and empowered ACEs, trained to use their existing skills alongside environmental expertise to achieve improvements. This gives us so much potential to achieve more by combining enthusiasm and expertise with the ability to think beyond traditional defined roles, creating an enabling culture across the business.

I am currently working on the development of our strategy and this will be developed using feedback received from the attendees of our first Sustainability Forum. It will recognise our place in the wider community, seeking to develop mutually beneficial relationships with councils, community interest groups and environmental groups to ensure that our targets and objectives are aligned where possible.

As for my place in our industry I feel we need to take a step back and look at how we function. We have some incredible examples of very sustainable projects but still they stand out as flagships. We have moved towards developing deeper understanding, as seen in Network Rail with their recent excellent training work with the Institute for Environmental Management and Assessment, a positive step in the right direction but if projects are still measured on the delivery phase only, will life time benefits make the final design? Only time will tell.

What if we looked from a slightly different perspective at the strategic level? What if we began to focus on switching as many stations as possible to renewable energy, such as Photo Voltaics, to contribute to easing pressure on the grid. I can hear the traction engineers pointing out that this is a drop in the ocean, which it is, but if we were able to combine reduced consumption with LED lighting as well, some sites could become energy positive, not just neutral. Consider too, plots of railway land, which aren’t always suitable for building on, could solar arrays become a feature to support our collective energy needs?

This is just one example and of course there is no one solution to sustainable rail, but through effective relationships now, change on a massive scale is possible.

As a representative of the largest TOC in the UK, I commit myself to that growing conversation and to developing our team to work for that future as I believe we will have a strong contribution to make to the transition our industry needs to drive forward. I know many of my industry peers are committed too, so let’s get to work!

Date: 26 June 2015

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