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West Coast Express passengers likely being exposed to diesel fumes: study

Last Updated Feb 28, 2017 at 8:03 am PST

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Summary

Commuter trains across North America likely tainted with toxic fumes, say researchers

Trains that use diesel engines may be at higher risk of allowing exhaust to seep into passenger cabins

MISSION (NEWS 1130) – You could unknowingly be exposed to toxic fumes while riding the rails on the West Coast Express.

New research from the University of Toronto’s Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research shows carcinogenic diesel exhaust is seeping into GO Transit trains in that province, and the same issue likely affects most North American commuter trains that use diesel engines.

“This is an issue that is not unique to Toronto, it is unique to a lot of commuter trains in North America and around the world and it’s also an issue for passenger trains such as the VIA trains,” explains Dr. Greg Evans, a chemical engineer and co-author of the study. “This is an issue that is potentially relevant to passenger trains both in Canada and the US, so there really is an opportunity for others to take steps to address the issue as well.”

The research is some of the first ever to look at the issue of pollutant exposure inside commuter trains.

TransLink‘s West Coast Express fleet of F59PHI diesel-electric locomotives is not modern enough to meet Tier 4 standards laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Evans’ report recommends commuter operators upgrade their equipment to that level.

Interestingly, the fumes are only a problem half the time and it all has to do with direction. “The levels of pollutants that are representative of diesel emissions were much higher in the car right behind the locomotive when the locomotive was pulling the train,” says Evans. “It’s [when] pulling the train that there’s an issue. When it’s pushing the train, the air quality is just fine. So people are exposed typically one out of their two commutes each day.”

Evans and his team did try some solutions on the Ontario trains.

He praised GO Transit for working with researchers. “We tested with them some much higher-efficiency filters and they’re in the process of implementing that based upon these results, so that’s one very positive step forward. But there are other things that can be done,” says Evans who adds those include the more-modern locomotives or making a line fully-electric.

Evans says there are a range of potential health concerns, especially for those with existing heart or lung conditions. “It really increases a risk, and that’s where it becomes a little hard for people to understand. So the risk relates both to what they’re exposed to and how susceptible they may be as individuals.”

Evans is himself a rail commuter and will continue to be one. He does recommend moving away from the first car of a train when it’s being pulled.

In a statement, TransLink says, “West Coast Express will be meeting with industry peers on the subject in the near future to better understand health impacts for our customers.” The transit authority adds it may, in the future, install high-efficiency filters in the ventilation system but has no plans to overhaul or replace any of its original 1995 engines in the near future.