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Rail has eco credentials it is only just beginning to fully appreciate. Roger Williams, md Explore Catering, discovers sustainability initiatives on the tracks

For the last decade rail companies have, with one or two exceptions, tinkered around the edges of environmental best practice, wanting to look good but not inclined to spend much.

But with new electric high-speed trains becoming the most environmentally-friendly way to travel from centre to centre, it has suddenly dawned on train operating companies (TOCs) that they have an amazing marketing message – trains are greener than both short-haul flights and long-distance road journeys. This message is driving new consumer behavior and, naturally, TOCs want to maximise their advantage and are looking to their own practice, and that of their catering supply chain, to strengthen their green credentials further.

Sustainable food

Many are focusing hard on responsibly sourcing more sustainable products. Leading the pack is Eurostar whose food sourcing has been at the forefront of sustainable solutions since 2012 when it became the first transport operator to be awarded a star by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA). With a second awarded in 2014, it is now reviewing again its entire food and drink operation aiming to achieve a third star by 2020.

Fruit and veg is mostly seasonal, LEAF certified (Linking Environment And Farming) and grown in the UK organically. Ingredients are free from genetic modification, sourced from sustainable farmers committed to high environmental standards and Fairtrade or organic if possible.

Meat must be indigenous, naturally fed, free range and easily traceable. They never serve white veal or foie gras. Similarly fish must be indigenous and from under-used species of fish, avoiding endangered species altogether. A featured beer or cider of the month is also always sourced locally.

Sustainability benchmark

According to my research, 64% of passengers put sustainability benefits (both social and environmental) in the top three most important factors for choosing rail travel. So suppliers should sense-check their products for functionality and price, closely followed by impact on personal and then collective wellbeing.

The more relevant a supplier’s provenance is to a TOC the better. Equally global innovations, like Fairtrade, are welcome too, all forming part of a “sustainability benchmark”.

The more relevant a supplier’s provenance is to a TOC the better. Equally global innovations, like Fairtrade, are welcome too, all forming part of a “sustainability benchmark”.

Waste reductions

The bad publicity around single-use plastics helped spur caterer, RG, working with LNER to remove remove 2.3m plastic tumblers from the supply chain, reducing single-use plastic to landfill by around 30 tonnes annually.

RG also reduced the plastic used in LNER’s sandwich packaging in 2018/19 equivalent to another by 676kg. And, by using Harrogate Water onboard, all LNER’s water bottles are made from 50% recycled plastic and are 100% recyclable, including the label and lid.

Eurostar also moved water supplier to Radnor Water whose water bottles are made from 51% recycled plastic. Additionally, all meal lids used are now made from 100% recycled plastic.

Pushing passengers towards apps, QR codes and smart phone tickets has also cut the amount of paper used for tickets for Great Western Railway (GWR) and Eurostar – 30% down for the latter. Others such as RENFE in Spain have advance online meal selection services – minimising food waste by ensuring no food is over-loaded and reducing the need for printed menus, although this is only really practical where mains have to be reserved in advance.

Using locally-sourced products with regional provenance and rotable style has added a touch of luxury to GWR’s Pullman services, with linen tablecloths saving on paper cloths and paper place mats, and there’s no single-use plastic in sight as the full silver service uses proper cutlery, crockery and glassware. All products on the menusare cooked freshly onboard using local produce, reducing food miles, whether that’s the Welsh Great Westerner breakfast, with the famous Glamorgan sausage and free-range eggs from local farms; or for dinner the seared West Country fillet steak, or spiced apple crumble with rich Cornish custard.

In Austria OBB is involved in a special project which strives to increase the variety of heritage grains available and preserve biodiversity. The resulting produce is used in its signature organic breakfast muesli.


Finnish railways (VR) offers restaurant cars that only serve Finnish food and a takeaway service. Using in a paper carrier bag that acts as the collector for recyclable waste it has helped to remove single-use plastic from their food offer and for drinks, glass bottles are used wherever available on a like-for-like product basis.

In the UK, Virgin Trains has donated blankets, scarves and dog coats which have been made from old staff uniforms to homeless charities. The upcycled clothes were transformed by prisoners at HM Prison Northumberland at their onsite textiles factory. This initiative follows a partnership with Change Please Coffee which used profits generated from a contract with Virgin Trains to recruit more people who have experienced homelessness to be trained as baristas.

Other community initiatives have seen London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) join pupils of Weston St Mary School in Lincolnshire and the Carbon Footprint organisation to plant 150 trees within the school grounds, part of a tree planting programme that will add a total of 2,800 native broadleaf trees to locations along the East Coast mainline.

More ideas are emerging all the time and RG (previously Rail Gourmet) is pioneering a collaborative approach by holding industry wide CSR Workshops – seminars that bring together RG, train operating companies and leading suppliers.

The workshops aim to seek new ways to save the planet by reducing waste, saving energy, increasing sustainability in the supply chain and increasing the use of smart technology.

Rail operators are clearly beginning to recognise this is an issue worth investing in. Watch this space for further developments.


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