IMechE calls for new clean air act to tackle ill-health from air pollution


air pollution
The effect of air quality in stations is a neglected factor, and retrofitting trains may help

The IMechE calls for a legislative response to air quality issues, we ask: what measures would be most effective at reducing health impacts of air pollution?

A new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers is calling for a response from government similar to the Clean Air Act that banished lethal London smogs in the 1950s to tackle the increasingly-apparent dangers of air pollution. Stating that airborne pollutants are causing problems ranging from slowing the development of children’s lungs to cardiovascular problems in the elderly, the Institution has published a report focusing attention on pollution from different transport modes.

The problem is nationwide, the IMechE stressed. “While much of the media focus is on our capital, it is worth noting that this is a serious problem that affects us all,” said Phillipa Oldham lead author of the report. “Different communities will require their own solutions; for example, in cities outside London the proportion of public transport is lower, so the proportion of emissions from diesel and petrol cars is greater.”

Nonetheless, Oldham added, pollution from trains is a problem that has not received enough attention. “Regular commuters encounter air pollution twice a day up to 250 days a year. Even railway stations have relatively high levels of air pollution from diesel. Major railway stations with high numbers of diesel-operated trains include London Marylebone, Birmingham (New Street and Snow Hill), Manchester (Piccadilly and Victoria), Liverpool Lime Street, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Bristol Temple Meads and Cardiff (Central and Queen Street).”

The report calls for trials of rolling-stock, including diesel and bi-mode trains that switch between electric and diesel operation, to better quantify pollution levels, and for studies of the impact of exposure of commuters and railway staff to pollutants in underground and overground stations.

The phase-out of older, heavily-polluting diesel vehicles is a major recommendation of the report, and it includes trains among the vehicles it wants to see the back of. One recommendation states that trains with plenty of years of service left could be retrofitted with stop-start technology to limit the emissions in stations. It calls for acceleration of electrification of the main lines connecting cities and ports, and for rescheduling of freight deliveries outside peak hours. It also recommends that the impact of electric vehicles on air pollution at the beginning and end of their lifetimes (in producing and recycling batteries) needs attention, suggesting that the economic viability of battery recycling may be a particular issue.

“Technology has its part to play in addressing the problem, but there is a role and responsibility for individuals too,” Oldham noted. “Back in the 1950s, doctors kick-started a national movement on the risks of smoking; there is a need to start doing the same with air quality, to encourage people to drive less and use public transport, walk and cycle more.”