Train Talk: Interview with Margrethe Sagevik

Margrethe Sagevik works as Senior Adviser on Sustainable Development for the International Union of Railways (UIC). Carbusters called her up to talk about the “Train to Copenhagen” campaign, the world of sustainable transport after COP15 and the future of the rail business.

Could you tell us a little about UIC and your position there?

UIC is the global organisation for cooperation between and promotion of railways, and has a strong tradition of working on sustainability issues, both by supporting members in improving their sustainability performance and communicating on the sector level towards external key stakeholders. I belong to the Sustainable Development team in Paris. My responsibilities are within sustainable mobility and climate change, and I am chair of the UIC Sustainable Mobility Expert Network. My work includes developing indicators and tools to report on sustainability performance and progress of railways, as well as promoting rail towards key international stakeholders such as the United Nations.

In the run up to COP15 you were campaigning to put attention on the important role that trains have to play in a sustainable modal shift for the transport sector. How was the response?

The response to our communication campaign “Train to Copenhagen” in the run up towards COP15 in Copenhagen was overwhelming and extremely encouraging! The main reason for this was that we were partnering up with WWF, UN and its “Seal the Deal” campaign. It’s one thing when the rail sector says that it is a part of the solution, and another thing when influential partners support that message. Together we reached a large audience mainly through the media, but also through our trains and stations.

Since there was no deal in Copenhagen, how have you proceeded afterwards? Are you still focusing on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and what other institutions are you approaching?

We still consider UNFCCC an important platform for promoting change. Another important platform, especially this year, is the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) that is reviewing existing transport policies in 2010. In 2011 CSD will launch new transport policies, and it is important that rail’s role as the back bone of sustainable mobility is included there. Most of all we believe in cooperation, alliances and bridge building. Therefore we also support initiatives gathering many organisations working together for low carbon and sustainable transport solutions and policy development such as SloCat and Bridging the Gap.

During COP15 there was a lot of talk about the “Avoid-Shift-Improve” scheme; could you elaborate a bit on that?

“Avoid-Shift-Improve” refers to three main strategies to reduce emissions from the transport sector. Transport is causing nearly one quarter of the global CO2-emissions. If you look into where these emissions actually come from, you will see that the road sector has the lion’s share with nearly 75 percent. “Avoid” refers to unnecessary transport. “Shift” refers to the move we have to make towards low carbon solutions, and here rail is ready to take its responsibility as the back bone of sustainable mobility. “Improve” refers to the emission reductions needed by all transport modes. UIC is, for example, working very hard to continuously improve the rail sector’s low carbon performance via several projects and activities including both technical and operational measures.

How do you look at the relation between trains, cars and other modes of transport, and how does this affect your approach to trying to get more trains on the tracks?

I believe the solution for the transport sector is to develop smart transport systems, where the sustainability advantages of each mode is exploited and combined in one joint system, including rail and cars. Rail offers the backbone of such systems with its low carbon performance, its low external costs, as well as offering access to mobility and quality of life to people. Of course, the rail sector is working to provide more attractive train services and solutions, including more trains, in order to ensure that customers actually prefer and choose train when possible.

How do you see the future for the train industry? What positive developments are on the way and what obstacles are there to increasing the modal share for trains?

The main obstacles to increase the modal share of rail are the economy and policy making that does not take the external costs of transport into account. As I see it, the future of the train industry and sector depends on brave, well-informed and long-sighted policy-making that is based on a cross sectoral approach. I think, as for most aspects in life, we are best when we work together. Access to mobility and transportation reach into most aspects of our society and should therefore not be handled by transport decision-makers alone. I do hope and think that a positive outcome of the economic crisis is that we might be forced to realise that we need a paradigm shift in order to ensure a sustainable development, including the transport sector.

For the rail industry and sector itself – in addition to ensuring the continuous improvement of the train product – it has to work closer with its electricity suppliers in order to ensure a green energy supply in the future as electrified trains will always be as green as the energy fed into them.

Finally, do you have any advice for carfree advocates on how trains can be used as a way to approach carfreeness, both from a planning and advocating perspective?

I would first of all congratulate all carfree advocates for their guts, as you are promoting a lifestyle that challenges our lifestyle, our personal freedom, as we know it today, and that is brave! You also put pressure on trains as you most probably depend more on train services than people with cars – which is of course very good! Keep on inspiring us to perform better! If I should give you further advice I think it is important to stay open for people who are not (yet) into your way of thinking, to listen to and to try to understand them – in order to facilitate good and constructive dialogues where you speak with each other and not against each other. Taking into account the predictions from UNEP stating that the world’s car fleet is expected to reach 3 billion cars in the not too distant future, compared to 1 billion today, your arguments are of increasing importance! Keep up the good work, and let’s keep on exploring on how we can work together!

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