Feb 28

A carbon footprint analysis of railway sleepers in the United Kingdom

Georgios Rempelos, Prof Jonathan Preston and Dr Simon Blainey

Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment


Scopus rating (2019): CiteScore 7.7 SJR 1.662 SNIP 2.05



This paper provides an assessment of the lifecycle Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions associated with the four most common sleeper (railroad tie or cross-tie in North America) types present in the UK rail network. It estimates the embodied material, process and transport emissions linked with the lifecycle activities of construction, relay/renewal and end-of-life of these variants at low and high traffic tonnage. The analysis suggests that at low traffic loads, the softwood sleepers perform the best over the whole simulated-period. At high traffic loads, the concrete sleepers outperform all other variants in terms of lifecycle CO2e emissions, followed by hardwood, softwood and steel. Regardless of the scenario examined, the steel sleepers perform the worst due to the carbon intensive nature of their manufacturing process. This performance gap is amplified at high traffic loads, as their service life is excessively compromised. The analysis reveals that the end-of-life pathway of timber is a critical determinant of its footprint. Results suggest that the impact of disposing of these sleepers results in their footprint being magnified. Nevertheless, if a minimum of 50% follows the combustion pathway with subsequent heat recuperation, then a GHG reduction potential of between 11% and 18% of their footprint is feasible. From a whole-lifecycle cost lens, for higher tonnage routes, the choice of concrete sleepers results in considerable financial savings. If the infrastructure manager was to install sleepers with stiff under sleeper pads (USPs), it may achieve additional economic and GHG savings, with potential for increasing the latter using recycled carbon-neutral USPs.