What is Greenrail?
The founder of Greenrail is Giovanni De Lisi: a 30-year-old Sicilian, currently based in Milan. When I was interviewing him in the company’s office at Polihub, startups’ incubator of Polytechnic University of Milan, he began with a promise: “Greenrail was not born in front of a desk, but out in the field”. His business spirit emerged at a railway maintenance company in Palermo: “I had enrolled in Law, but I immediately realised that it was not my path. I told my father, an entrepreneur in the sector of railway maintenance, that I would like to work with him. I started from the basic level – protective gloves, helmet and safety shoes” – says Giovanni.
It would seem like a classic Italian story – according to AIDAF, 85% companies in our country are family-owned – except that Giovanni did not just follow his father’s footsteps. “My attention was focused on the railway sleepers (that part of the railway, to which the rails are attached). Once they were made of wood, in the 60s wood was replaced by concrete: a material that has much higher resistance, but entails very high maintenance costs, which in most cases are paid by the public administration, therefore by the community. I thought it is time to change that”. In 2012, Giovanni begins working on Greenrail project: an eco-sustainable railway sleeper with an inner core in prestressed concrete and an outer shell obtained from a mix of recycled plastic and rubber collected from End-of-Life Tyres.
Focus on work, vision in the future
According to the founder, Greenrail sleepers have four strengths: they absorb the vibration and lower the noise level, reduce maintenance costs by 50%, have a lifespan of 50 years (while standard, normal sleepers in concrete last for 30/40 years), and they cost less. From 2012 until today, the product has been patented in 147 countries in the world. The transition between phases of designing and production required a lot of energy and tenacity to spend many years on research aimed at combining efficiency and sustainability: before Greenrail, several companies have tried to replace the concrete in sleepers with recycled plastic, but these products could only be installed on the railways dedicated to trains traveling with a speed lower than 80 km/h – a limit, which has automatically cut them off the high speed market. “This is why”, explains Giovanni, “we kept the inner core in concrete, covering it with a mix of a blend of plastic and rubber. This way we managed to make our sleepers a universal product, suitable for any type of line: subway, local trains, high speed.”
Technology and need for energy
In the life of a startup, moments of crisis are normal. From this point of view, Greenrail has a story to tell: its first difficult moment came when the startup was nothing more than an idea. And if today Greenrail is a candidate for becoming the new standard railway sleeper worldwide, it is thanks to Giovanni’s strength and perseverance in defending his project: “Two gurus of chemistry told me clearly that mixing plastic and powder from ELTs is impossible and that it would be just a waste of time. I had some funds and told them I would like to try anyway. We’ve tested more than 30 blends and finally we found the right one”. The second state of crisis has come in a decisive moment in the life of a startup: meeting with the first customer. And what a customer it was! “Three years ago we were a bit more than just an idea, but the Brazilian Railways were already willing to entrust first kilometres of railways with us. The problem was we were not ready yet to give them what they wanted. This delay gave us motivation: we understood we need to move forward even faster and invest in the team.”
Innovation at community’s service
Greenrail has gained wide recognition (from China to United States). What attracts interest, apart from the innovative aspect of the project, is its environmental impact: every year, 311 million tonnes of plastic and 225 million used tyres end up in European landfills. Thanks to its particular outer shell’s mix, Greenrail can reuse 35 tonnes of recycled plastic and rubber from ELTs per each kilometre of railway. And that’s not all: aside basic Greenrail sleeper, the company has designed other two smart products, Greenrail Solar and Greenrail LinkBox. The first incorporates photovoltaic panels for solar energy harvesting, transforming the railways into a photovoltaic fields. The second will be able to diagnose and transmit line security data. “The goal was to create a working product, which solves all the technical problems of the competitors and is a sustainable solution at the same time. Having achieved that gives us power to face the toughest challenge out there: the market” – explained Giovanni De Lisi.