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Transport & Logistics

100% circular trains by 2030 – the Dutch rail company that doesn’t believe in waste

22 Aug 2022, by Amy Sarcevic

Not many office workers can claim that their laptop bag has travelled 5.7 million kilometres around the country, but project manager and circular economy enthusiast Ilse de Vos van Eekeren can – and she does so proudly.

Ilse is heading a team at Dutch Railway in the Netherlands that seeks to find new lives for each and every component in an end-of-life train – one of many sustainability initiatives the organisation is pioneering.

Since starting the 100% circular trains by 2030 project, she has already converted ceiling plates, seat fabric, and floor panels into items such as shoes, laptop bags, and a Bluetooth speaker. In fact, Ilse’s entire suite of office furniture once began its life as a train.

Her efforts to make trains 100% circular – from purchase, use, maintenance, modernisation, to end-of-life – have given the Dutch Railway fleet a twenty year life extension and drastically reduced its carbon footprint.

“We were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of disposing of trains that had reached their end of lifecycle and buying new ones,” said Ilse ahead of the Rail Decarbonisation Conference.

“All trains have to be taken off the rails after 20 years of service, so that translates to an awful lot of wastage and a big impact on the environment.

“After becoming the first rail operator globally to power our trains with 100% wind energy, we have already given passengers the option of travelling without carbon dioxide emissions.

“Now, we are taking the next step of 100% circularity to make an even greater contribution to UN Sustainable Development goals.”

Starting at the floor

The journey began with a train floor, comprised of a wood base and linoleum surface. The floor was 20 years old, had been walked over by 44 million feet, and was aesthetically “unpleasing” with holes punctured in it at meter intervals.

“Given that the base and surface were glued together, recycling the raw materials was not an option. Besides, we had higher aspirations and wanted to reuse the parts,” Ilse said.

Ilse got on the phone and reached out to more than 200 product manufacturers to see if the floor could be of use in their product design.
“It was a painstaking task, but we eventually found a company who said they could possibly turn the floor into a table tennis table.”

When Ilse later got the call inviting her for a tennis match on the newly-designed table, she was “overjoyed”.

“It is great to see this old floor getting a new lease of life as a tennis table; and it was a really pivotal moment in our project,” she added.

Building a network

These days, Ilse doesn’t need to make 200 phone calls every time she wants to rehouse a train part.

“The floor served as an exemplar to industry, and it was pretty easy to bring upcycle partners on board after that,” she said.

To help, Ilse and colleagues made a ‘harvest book’ showcasing the material specifications for each train part and giving architects insight into their construction potential.

She then organised a series of workshops, inviting potential partners to walk through the trains and assess the components and materials first-hand.

“We now have a relatively fixed network of manufacturers that use our train parts on a regular basis in their manufacturing. So it was worth of all that initial legwork,” she said.

Creating demand

Where demand for certain train parts was lacking, Ilse had to get creative.
“We contacted our office furniture supplier and requested that they use our train parts in their manufacturing. They agreed; and we are now essentially our own supplier,” she said.

“My desk is made out of ceiling plates, but you wouldn’t know it. It looks like any other piece of office furniture – but with a much more interesting story behind it!”

Circular modernisation and procurement

Ilse also applies her strong circular principles to train modernisation and procurement.

She requires materials passports for any new train, equipment or technology she purchases from an external supplier, to ensure all the materials she buys are environmentally friendly.

Meanwhile, she aims to refurbish her train fleet with as many new recycled or reused parts as possible.

“100% circular trains means embedding circularity into the whole of the train’s life cycle – from purchase, use, maintenance, modernization to end of life,” she said.

Gaining material data

Key to all these efforts was insight into the train’s material data.
While Dutch Railway now requests material passports for all of its new train purchases, existing vehicles did not have this data on record. Ilse and team had to gather it themselves.

“Step by step we compiled material passports for all of our existing trains. Now that we have these -and request them for all new purchases – we’ve got all the tools we need to bring upcycle partners on board effortlessly,” she said.


While not financially motivated, the project has proven cost neutral. The extra labour costs incurred by activities like seat removal are offset by the elimination of disposal costs.

“If we take out floors and throw them in an incinerator, we have to pay for that. So that is already my starting budget for finding a new circular partner,” Ilse said.

Some of the parts are also being upcycled within Dutch Railway, helping the company save on raw materials.

“We are creating bicycle sheds out of window glass, which is great because it brings the value back into rail and gives us control over the new product’s future lifecycle,” Ilse said.

“For us, the destination of an upcycled train part is equally important to its initial reuse. If it turns into a product that ends up in an incinerator after just two months, then it’s not worth it. We want our reused products to have long and healthy lives wherever they end up.”

A global mission

With the company’s efforts a success, Ilse is now on a mission to help other countries upcycle their defunct train fleets.

“We are so proud of what we have achieved. However, we’re just a small country and we need everyone on board to make a real difference.”

She does not believe persuading others to follow suit will be difficult.

“Circular is not just necessary for preserving our earth – it is good for our wallets and makes our jobs so much more fun! Really, it’s a no-brainer,” she concluded.

Hear more about Ilse’s award winning approach at the Rail Decarbonisation Conference, hosted by Informa Connect. This year’s event will be held 5-6 September at the PARKROYAL Darling Harbour.

Learn more and register your place.

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