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  Handing on
our Heritage

Supporting Technical Paper 2.

Introduction of Biological and Landscape diversity considerations in the development and management of rail transport networks in Europe

by Guy Berthoud, ECONAT, Switzerland


Our study is based on information compiled in their national reports by the countries taking part in the COST 341 project, “Habitat fragmentation due to transportation infrastructure”, interviews with national officials and the results of questionnaire surveys conducted among them, our own data on railway routing in Switzerland gathered in the course of environmental impact studies, and a summary analysis of a few lines chosen as being representative of the European rail network.


After a period of rapid development, from the 1950s to the 1970s European rail networks suffered a decline and low profit lines were closed as the first motorways were built and road freight traffic developed. The construction of high-speed lines has given rail transport a new boost, but there are still a few countries where rail is losing out to road, particularly in the passenger sector. These countries are now trying to make public transport more attractive.


Railway infrastructure affects the environment in several ways during both the construction phase and once lines are in operation.  In an attempt to limit the impact on the environment, most countries have enacted laws and introduced guidelines and/or procedures that are designed to protect the environment and natural landscapes, principally on the basis of environmental impact assessments and strategic environmental assessments.


The main problems encountered during the construction phase are loss of landscape and loss of biotopes, as a result of the large areas of land needed to build railway lines, technical constraints that make it difficult for lines to blended into the landscape, and the use and storing of materials, notably ballast and tunnel-building materials.  Ballast is also a problem once a line is in service, as it has to be regularly replaced and is difficult to recycle, creating a need for more dumps.


Railway operations bring more problems, including the risk of collisions, in particular involving large mammals, the barrier effect, noise, animal movements along the track, and electrocution.  Other problems encountered are colonisation of the track by numerous plant species, and the presence of vegetation that can hamper operations as well as representing an attractive food source for animals, bringing a risk of collisions.  Such vegetation is often kept at bay by the use of herbicides, but these, along with faecal lavatory waste, metal dust and lubricants from passing trains, can be a source of pollution, particularly for the groundwater and soil.


A number of measures have been taken to combat these harmful effects.  They include the construction of special wildlife crossings (under- and overpasses), track fencing, covered cuttings, moderate and reasonable use of chemical herbicides, machine mowing at times likely to cause least disturbance to wildlife, and landscaping of embankments.


Other measures are still under study.  They include adapting ballast size in selected places to facilitate the crossing of amphibians, reptiles and small mammals, the use of anti-perch devices, and extra large insulators to reduce the risk of electrocution, and winter feeding of certain species of wildlife to encourage them to stay away from railway lines.

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