16 November 2000 | Cathy Hayward
Britain is set to become the first country in the world to procure environmentally friendly wooden sleepers on its railways.
All 90,000 wooden sleepers used by Railtrack for renewal works around the country will be acquired through organisations certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a non-profit organisation working to protect the world's forests via timber tracking and sustainable growth programmes.
"Railtrack is the only rail firm in the world to pioneer environmental procurement for timber," said the FSC's Amy Mulkern.
The news came as the government launched an environment policy unit at the Foreign Office, following Tony Blair's promise to keep the environment at the heart of policy making. CIPS's recent policy paper also urged buyers to adopt environmentally responsible purchasing.
Railtrack started purchasing environmentally friendly timber in December 1999 and has laid more than 2,000 of the sleepers, mainly near London's Euston station on the upgrade of the west coast mainline. But dwindling supplies in Australia and the refusal of the Malaysian government to export more timber, has prompted the firm to expand its green policy.
The move is not good news for some of Railtrack's old timber suppliers. The firm ditched suppliers in Western Australia after they refused to be certified.
"Our Guatemalan and South African suppliers could not afford it, but we agreed to absorb the initial cost, an increase of 30 per cent, and guarantee contracts for a period," said Darren White, environmental co-ordinator at Railtrack.
Other rail firms, including London Underground, French Rail and Irish Rail, have been reluctant to sign up to such policies as a result of cost and organisational barriers.
"Owing to our public-private partnership funding, there are three infrastructures that make it difficult to make across-the-board purchasing decisions of that nature," said a spokesman for London Underground.
Railtrack's decision is part of an ongoing environmentally friendly procurement policy. It is also looking at using recycled plastic sleepers and cable troughs as an alternative to concrete, which produces carbon dioxide.