The environment, sustainable development and rail


Our approach to environment and sustainable development through our regulatory activities of the national rail network.

We have two statutory duties under the Railways Act 1993 (as amended) which specifically relate to sustainable development and the environment. These are:

  • to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development; and
  • to have regard to the effect on the environment of activities connected with the provision of railway services.

We also have a duty to have regard to any general guidance given to ORR by the Secretary of State and Scottish Ministers. This general guidance can place specific sustainable development requirements on ORR.

ORR has different roles, functions, duties and powers across the railway.  Select a topic below to read more about other ways we address environment and sustainable development for rail.

Health and Safety

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Our role as the independent health and safety regulator is to encourage and oversee compliance with health and safety law. 

The requirements on the industry in terms of how health and safety and the environment interface includes how the industry responds to the challenges of:

  • climate change impacts on the safety and operation of the rail network;
  • reducing harmful emissions such as diesel exhaust emissions, which also links to the drive to decarbonise the railway; and
  • the risks presented by lineside vegetation and how management of this is balanced against legislative requirements to show no net loss in biodiversity on the railway estate.

The industry has to manage this balance while ensuring that it does all that is reasonably practicable to reduce health and safety and other day-to-day operational risks.

Current Control Period activity (CP6)

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  • During the current control period (CP6), we hold Network Rail to account for the development and delivery of its sustainable development commitments made in Periodic Review 2018 (PR18) including, amongst others, its Weather Resilience and Climate Change Action (WRCCA) Plans evaluating their efficacy to manage weather and climate risks. 
  • We also assess Network Rail’s delivery of its Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) (a composite measure comprised of key environmental measures on waste, carbon emissions and non-traction energy), through our day-to-day engagement and reporting on this in our annual assessment of Network Rail. We also require Network Rail to publish a wider range of environmental statistics in its Annual Return.
  • We are engaging with Network Rail on how to monitor performance against its Biodiversity Action Plan commitment to achieve no net loss in biodiversity on its lineside estate by 2024 and to achieve biodiversity net gain on each route by 2035.

Periodic Review 23 (PR23)

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  • We are increasing our focus in Periodic Review 2023 on environmental sustainability in control period 7 (CP7). This provides an opportunity to build on and consolidate the significant progress Network Rail has made in this area. 
  • PR23 must also reflect the contribution that rail must make to improve environmental performance, including net zero targets in Scotland (by 2045) and the rest of GB (by 2050). 
  • In 2019 Network Rail set out its ambitions in a suite of strategy documents, and we will look to see how it has reflected these in its plans for the 2024-29 CP7. We will consider how Network Rail’s plans will enable it to continue to work with its supply chain to innovate in this important area, including reducing scope 3 carbon emissions and adoption of new processes and technologies.
  • We are proposing to include three success measures for monitoring environmental sustainability as part of our outcomes framework in CP7. More information can be found in our recently published PR23 policy framework: A technical consultation on the measures in our proposed CP7 outcomes framework.
  • PR23 also provides opportunities for ORR to encourage focus on biodiversity and wider environmental issues. We will also consider the most appropriate set of metrics to monitor progress of the rail industry in delivering environmental and sustainability goals during CP7.

Transparency and reporting

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  • ORR is the recognised primary provider of railway industry official statistics. We publish an Annual Rail Emissions statistical release on the ORR data portal. This covers  consumption of electricity and diesel and provides estimates of total and normalised carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions from traction energy for passenger and freight operators at the national level. 
  • In our Official Statistics role we intend to work collaboratively with licence holders and industry partners, to enable us to publish a wider range of whole-industry environmental data. This will be relevant to rail industry environmental targets such as those set out in DfT’s Rail Environmental Policy Statement and the Scottish Government’s Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan. As Official Statistics this data should meet the pillars of trustworthiness, quality and value of the Office for Statistics Regulation Code of Practice for Statistics.
  • Similarly, Welsh legislation also impacts on rail, for example, specific biodiversity requirements and the Future Generations Act. We are required to produce a report on our performance in relation to the biodiversity duty under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. The report focuses on our approach to biodiversity and the exercise of the ORR’s statutory functions in relation to Wales. We updated this report in November 2022, it follows our previous report, which covered the period from 2016 to June 2021.

Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail (the Plan for Rail)

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  • This is a period of significant change for the rail industry. The UK Government has published the Plan for Rail with wide ranging reforms to the structure and operation of the industry. This includes the creation of a new body – Great British Railways (GBR) – that will both own the railway infrastructure and let and manage the passenger rail contracts.
  • The UK Government consulted in June 2022 on the legislative changes required to implement these reforms. Within the consultation, it is proposed that GBR’s licence will include a specific duty on the environment, as well as an increased focus on transparency and role for ORR in monitoring and enforcing this. We will update our approach as appropriate as the reform process progresses. 

Social sustainability

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  • We have specific roles on consumer protection and accessible transport. We publish an annual rail consumer report that focuses on how the rail industry supports accessible travel, as well as other services such as complaints handling, passenger information, ticket retailing and passenger rights.

Licensing activity

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Wider industry engagement

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  • We engage with industry stakeholders in the delivery of our duties including on environment and sustainability for example through projects run by RSSB.
  • Our Consumer Expert Panel provides independent advice and challenge, and plays a key role in bringing a consumer perspective to our policy and regulatory decisions. The Panel advises on our work including our duties in relation to sustainability and the environment. 
  • We also have regular engagement with environmental regulators for the three nations.

Authorisation of infrastructure and rolling stock

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  • We have a role in relation to authorisations of new, upgraded or renewed infrastructure or rolling stock. Authorisation is in the main about compliance to technical specifications set out in EU Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs) and UK notified national technical rules. The specifications include parameters associated with certain essential requirements including Environmental Protection.