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Bio-based materials, the promise of even greener regional trains TERs

What if SNCF switched to bio-based materials? Plant-based carpeting produced in northern and eastern France and fairings reinforced with flax fibres could also be components of tomorrow's trains.

Long used almost exclusively in the building sector, bio-based materials from living things such as wood, resins, or plant fibres are of increasing interest to manufacturers. Research and early experiments in transport, particularly in the automotive field, have shown that these materials can be lighter, have better acoustic performance, or absorb vibrations better. Now used for car door panels, dashboards, and false ceilings, they could soon be found in trains too.


The challenge? To replace petroleum-based materials in current use by bio-based materials that meet the requirements of the rail industry. In fact, plenty of train interior components made of thermosets plastic such as seats, shelves, and other furniture creates pollution, and what is more, these components are non-recyclable and difficult to repair.


To assess the usefulness of these materials in the railway sector, Benoît Dodin, head of innovative materials projects, assembled a team of experts, including ones from the Rolling Stock Engineering Centre (CIM) and the SNCF’s expert “SYNAPSES” network. As part of a call for competencies by SNCF Innovation & Research, SNCF Mobilités, and two french competitiveness centres, I–Trans (transport) and IAR (bio-economy), they held a meeting on 21 November at SNCF Innovation & Research to be attended by selected companies and laboratories along with SNCF experts from the business activities as well as the equipment, sustainable development, and purchasing departments.


The potential field of innovation is very broad in this area, and multiple benefits are possible. These might include a means of uniting ecological and technical performance at a cost identical to existing methods and equipment. Use of bio-based materials will be part of a global approach in which preference is given to French industries in regions historically recognized for their know-how, such as the Grand Est or the Hauts de France for flax and hemp fibres, which are of particular interest.

Did you know?Bio-based materials: a solution “Made in France”?

Yes! SNCF has chosen to work only with so-called sober crops, that is, ones that are not food sources, rather than plants like soybeans, for example, which are produced with intensive agriculture outside Europe.

Yes! SNCF has chosen to work only with so-called sober crops, that is, ones that are not food sources, rather than plants like soybeans, for example, which are produced with intensive agriculture outside Europe.


These bio-based materials also give SNCF a strong competitive advantage. In the planned major renovation of the TER regional fleet, SNCF could propose that locally made components be included in the trains serving each region. However, since railway standards are very strict, particularly in terms of safety, tests would still have to be done to perfectly adapt the proposed equipment.

Did you know?Bio-based materials: are they here? 

Almost! But before they are deployed on our trains, great challenges must be overcome. First of all, railway standards are very strict regarding safety, especially fire safety. How materials behave in fires (e.g. flammability) and the smoke they produce (e.g. opacity and toxicity) are critical factors. Studies and tests must therefore be done to obtain official approval of the materials. In addition, when one says “bio-based”, one does not necessarily mean recyclable and repairable, two very important conditions for use in the railway sector. Finally, the question of cost is essential, since materials must offer economically viable solutions.

At this stage, the laboratories and manufacturers interviewed – they range from start-ups to large groups – are proposing solutions at varying degrees of maturity, and these will have to be analysed and adapted. So, work is just getting underway, but Benoît Dodin is very hopeful that the simplest train parts could be designed with bio-based materials within a year or two.