Pollution, Covid and Trains

Voyager at Birmingham New Street

There has been a significant amount of research recently to investigate the air quality in railway stations. Perhaps the major study, with which I was very much involved, involved extensive measurements of the air quality at Birmingham New Street by colleagues at the University of Birmingham (Figure 1). Measurements were made of the oxides of nitrogen (NOX) and particulate matter (PM) and concentrations were measured that were considerably in excess of Environmental Health limits. Typical daily average results are shown in Figure 2. This work informed the efforts by Network Rail to improve the air quality at the station through an improved ventilation system. Further work was carried out by Kings College London and Edinburgh University, under an RSSB contract, to measure NOX and PM at Kings Cross in London and Edinburgh Waverley. Typical results are shown in figure 3 and although these results are not as extreme as the Birmingham measurements, do show some exceedances of environmental health limits. Between them, these three investigations have given a great deal of information on station air quality and informed methods for alleviating the worst of the effects.

Figure 1. Air quality measurements at Birmingham New Street
Figure 2. Daily pollutant levels at Birmingham New Street (red lines show EU limits)
Figure 3 Comparison of pollutant levels at New Street, Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley

However, that is not the whole story. There are growing indications that air quality ON trains is also very poor. A study on diesel commuter stock in Canada has shown high levels of ultrafine particles and black carbon within the passenger cabins (Figure 4). In 2016 the BBC reported the measurements made by their reporter Tim Johns  as he commuted into London, which again showed high particulate levels on diesel commuter trains, although not as high as in Black Cabs (Figure 5). Similarly, the BBC in 2019 reported a study by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants which showed very high levels of particulates on the London underground (Figure 6) which resulted in a strong response from the rail unions. These high levels are presumably due to two sources – diesel particulate emissions from trains being ingested into air conditioning systems, and also from ambient particulates in the dirty tunnels of the underground. The levels of particulates measured have significant implications for human health, particularly for those with respiratory conditions.  

Figure 4. Air Quality measurements on Canadian trains
Figure 5. Particulate measurements by BBC Reporter
Figure 6. BBC report on Underground particulate levels

Similarly, some work has been recently reported from Greece that shows elevated levels of both gaseous pollutants and particulate pollutants on diesel trains, both in excess of EU limits (Figure 7). Again this is presumably due to ingestion of diesel emissions by ventilation systems. Hopefully in the near future we will see the results of more quantitative investigations for the UK of on train NOX and particulate concentrations, and of work to investigate the ingestion of external pollutants, both from diesel emissions and dirty environments, by ventilation systems. However current indications are, that, care should be taken in using ventilations systems that draw external air into the train without the use of extensive filtering of the input.

Figure 7. NOX measurements on Greek train (red line is EU limit)

And then along comes Covid-19. The importance of high levels of ventilation on reducing pathogen concentrations and thus the risk of infection is becoming clear – se for example the recent seminar organized by the University of Birmingham. Ideally, very high (airline) levels of air exchange with the outside are required in internal environments, including trains and buses. An interesting illustration of this is provided by the publicity material in figure 8 produced by SNCF in France. I have seen nothing similar for the UK. There is an obvious dichotomy here between the need to reduce external air intake to minimize NOX and PPM ingestion and to keep internal levels of NOX and particulates at an acceptable level, and the need to increase ventilation rates to decrease pathogen levels. Both could be achieved by aggressive filtration of the air drawn through the train. However, this is likely to require major modification to existing trains in Britain, that won’t be cheap. I suspect train ventilation is going to become a major issue in the near future.

Figure 8. SNCF publicity material

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