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Track materials: a sustainable resource to be recovered

subject Published on 03/08/2021 updated on 11/24/2020

Better consumption and better production are essential practices that SNCF Réseau places at the heart of its production. By recovering the huge stock of materials from railway tracks, the infrastructure manager combines its responsible commitments with its aim of economic efficiency.

To each component, its sector 

Ballast, sleepers, rails, catenaries... Every year, 2.6 million tonnes of materials from the railway network are discarded during tracks maintenance or renewal works. A “material capital” to which SNCF Réseau is giving new life in line with the goals of a circular economy, which encourages the collection, sorting, reuse, repurposing and recycling of used components.  


Recovering in all its forms

  • Recycling is an operation in which waste is reprocessed into substances, materials or products that may or not be used for their original function. Example: the remelting of rails in steelworks
  • Repurpose refers to the use of a good considered to be waste possibly other than for its original purpose. Example: the use of ballast and crushed concrete sleepers to make road underlay. 
  • In the case of reuse, the substances, materials or products are used for the same purpose for which they were designed. Example: direct reuse on tracks of rails and ballast.

Depending on their nature, the products from network maintenance or renewal projects are subject to special processing to achieve an optimal balance between environmental and economic performance. 

  • Ballast is SNCF Réseau's leading product in terms of recovery. Its integration into new life cycles should lead to the avoidance of 400,000 tonnes of aggregate extraction by 2022. Already well reused on conventional lines, studies are underway to determine opportunities for reuse on high-speed lines.
  • Network rails are a high-quality secondary material as they are made of pure steel. With 150,000 tonnes discarded each year, they represent 1% of the non-ferrous metals recovered in France. 
  • The regulations applicable to treated wood oblige the company to recover energy from wooden treated sleepers. These sleepers have a competitive advantage as their calorific value is higher compared to other combustible waste. The reuse of wooden sleepers is also permitted on the railway network: they are relaid on service tracks or regional lines.
  • Once their life cycle has ended, concrete sleepers are excellent materials for buildings, road underlay or sewerage infrastructures.
  • Cables installed along the track derive their reuse potential from the copper they contain. 

Ensuring industrial control over the supply chain

In order to organise the transfer of used components from the railway environment to internal or external recovery channels, SNCF Réseau has created a One-Stop Shop for discarded products. It collaborates with the company's engineering teams and those in charge of the supply of materials to study the potential for reuse on the railway network on each site, compile requirements, and draft an overall forecast by product family and material typology.   

In the territories, the identification of stocks of materials and the planning of flows contribute to improving reuse. In 2019, the modernisation of the Nîmes-Montpellier line in the Occitania region provided an opportunity to recover 41 kilometres of rails for reuse on local lines and on a section of the Narbonne-Bize freight line - which included the reuse of ballast and sleepers as well. 

See the video on the Narbonne-Bize line modernisation project


Decommissioned products are not forgotten

As part of its proactive efforts, SNCF Réseau is also working on the recovery of decommissioned or unidentified products in local stocks. In Beaune, a recycling plant has been set up to collect, control and recondition these products. They will then be reintegrated into the national stock or recycled. SNCF Réseau is thus putting into practice one of the key principles of the circular economy: the best waste is the waste you don't produce!

Ambitious objectives

By 2025, SNCF Réseau intends to collect 100% of the track's structural materials (rails, sleepers, ballast, cables) for recovering. Carbon emissions related to the supply of materials and end-of-life disposal will have to be reduced by 25% by 2030. 

Download / Read the Circular Economy factsheet

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