The rail industry as a force for change

Rail has been changing Britain for a long time: our first known overground ‘wagonways’, used for hauling coal, predate Shakespeare’s King Lear

But its social impact began to tell in the nineteenth century, as it helped to transform Britain into a modern industrial nation. Time was standardised across the country to enable a national train timetable; rail brought seafood to inland areas for the first time, as it could be transported before it rotted; it allowed greater economic mobility; and it contributed to the rise of the summer holiday. Railways even played a part in the rise of professional regulated sports like football, allowing teams from around the country to compete. 

Cultural, economic, social, environmental: the impact of the railway was huge. But now that its novelty has faded, making it just one of the ways we transport ourselves and our goods, it’s easy to take its impact for granted.

We shouldn’t: the current social impact of rail is almost incalculable - quite literally.

Introducing social sustainability

Social value is a relatively new area of study - there’s currently no legal or commonly accepted definition. The UK Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 talks about securing wider social, economic and environmental benefits. The UN Global Compact covers identifying and managing the impacts of business (both positive and negative) on people.

But at its simplest, social sustainability is about measuring impact on the welfare and wellbeing of both individuals and wider society. From rail’s point of view, it’s about being good at something that’s good for people - plus knowing how good, and in which ways.

A business’ social license to operate depends greatly on its social sustainability. We need to consider not only our current social value, but the social value we could offer. Economic arguments for new projects or activities are no longer enough: we need good social ones too.

This includes understanding how infrastructure projects affect: the environment and biodiversity; cultural heritage; access to housing; mental and physical health; crime and safety; inclusivity and distribution of opportunities; and social capital.

Measurement’s more important than ever

Rail’s already one of the most sustainable forms of transport. But it’s also a capital-intensive piece of national infrastructure. Moving to Net Zero will require huge investment: electrifying lines, enabling freight to compete with road transport, and implementing new technologies to reduce emissions. We don’t yet know what effect a post-Covid world will have on rail’s social value. And as HS2 has shown, new rail projects can evoke strong feelings - not all positive.

Meanwhile, other industries are making progress - such as the slick, futuristic design of EVs. A new train, a newly electrified track, or a community rail project may not have the immediate appeal of the latest Tesla, but it makes more of a difference. We need to become better at telling the story of our social value.

Social value’s tricky: it’s relatively simple to measure inputs - the things we do, like connecting communities, providing employment, taking carbon off the roads - but it can be hard to put a monetary value on the outputs - the effect on people and communities - especially for such a large and varied industry.

Our progress

But rail’s already making fantastic progress. The basic numbers show that: 

Rail directly employs 240,000 people in Britain. People made 1.7 billion journeys in 2019-2020: an increase of over 140% since the mid-90s. And RSSB’s Common Social Impact Framework (CSIF) suggests that community rail volunteers generate £27.6 million of social value a year. And these big numbers only scratch the surface. Individual businesses, like Avanti West Coast and South Western Railway, are making great progress in measuring social impact.

But we must take other numbers into account, like the upcoming cost of network electrification - we need to show the value this investment will produce. 

That’s why RSSB is building on the CSIF to create the Rail Social Value Tool. This innovative web tool is a first for the global transport sector, and a game-changer in assessing rail’s social value and sustainability. With 500 indicators, it will enable more rail workers to understand, calculate and communicate the social value of their activities. 

Potentially measurable benefits include:

  • Societal impacts, including improved air quality
  • Reduced climate change, and how it helps to protect livelihoods
  • Sustained direct and indirect employment
  • The economic and social benefits of increased connectivity and strengthened communities
  • Reductions in congestion
  • Improved global competitiveness for British companies
  • Increased biodiversity 

The outcome for us

Measuring social sustainability isn’t about cost savings, but added value. The more we measure, the more we can communicate - not just to policymakers, but to attract future generations of rail workers. It will also allow us to target future investments to maximise social benefits.

This is the start of the social value journey. But we can say the same for rail: we’re at the dawn of a new era. We don’t think about social value every day right now - perhaps because we’re familiar with the benefits of rail. But the more we communicate our social value, the better off we all will be.