Chicago Train Riders Breathing Highly Toxic Air

Published November 29, 2010

A devastating investigation by the Chicago Tribune is casting serious doubt on the environmental benefits of public transportation. Day after day, the Tribune reported on November 5, “thousands of commuters are breathing high levels of toxic diesel pollution trapped in Chicago’s two major rail stations and even inside the trains they ride.”

72 Times Worse
When commuters are walking through train stations, standing on platforms, or riding in passenger cars, they are exposed to levels of heart- and lung-damaging diesel soot that pose serious health risks, the newspaper found.

In fact, commuters are worse off in the trains than outside. The Tribune found the air trapped inside the stainless-steel cars after trains have left the station contains levels of diesel soot up to 72 times higher than on the busy streets outside.

“Pollution levels remain high during most of the trips away from the city,” the Tribune reported. “Exposure drops sharply only after getting off the train.”

The findings are troubling because government justifies its subsidies for rail transportation, such as Chicago’s Metra, on claims of environmental and human health benefits.

Polluting Diesel Engines
The commuter trains that serve Chicago’s Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center are powered by diesel locomotives manufactured in the 1970s. Unlike modern diesel-powered locomotives, which burn their fuel in a relatively efficient and clean manner, the ancient beasts of burden serving Chicago and other cities are major polluters.

Adding to the problems facing commuters is the lack of ventilation at Union Station and the Ogilvie Center which, the newspaper noted, keeps soot and toxic gases concentrated inside stations used by 245,000 people every weekday. The cramped, pollution-laden nature of the tunnels at Union Station only makes the situation worse.

Pollution from the old diesel engines powering Chicago’s commuter trains includes benzene, arsenic, and formaldehyde. This toxic brew also contains fine particles, commonly known as soot, which can find their way into the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream.

Researchers are becoming increasingly alarmed over the health effects of exposure to soot, because even small amounts can inflame the lungs and trigger asthma attacks, the Tribune reports.

Fix Is Highly Expensive
Unfortunately for the Windy City’s commuters, there is little relief in sight. New, cleaner-burning locomotives cost $4 million each, and Metra, Chicago’s commuter rail service, doesn’t have the money to purchase them.

A new generation of cleaner locomotives is being developed and will become available to rail transportation systems in 2015, as part of a 2008 Bush administration rulemaking. But older locomotives, such as those serving Chicago, are likely to be around for many years to come because the post-2015 locomotives will carry an even higher price tag than today’s models.

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D), alarmed by the Tribune’s investigation, called for a federal probe of the pollution plaguing Chicago’s transit system. He also urged Metra to replace its older locomotives but did not say where the money to purchase new equipment could be acquired.

The Tribune reports Metra is spending what scant resources it has refurbishing older trains, including replacing windows, reupholstering seats, and installing cleaner engines in some of its dirtiest locomotives.

Ironic Double Standard
“If a private entity were subjecting its customers or the general public to such elevated levels of pollution, lawsuits would be flying and the company would likely—and justifiably—be run out of business,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute. “Why does the government, which takes our taxpayer dollars to subsidize these rail systems, always get a free pass?”

“The irony is that environmentalists are quick to criticize every environmental health risk created in the private sector,” agrees Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. “But when their preferred approach, in this case public transportation, imposes significant risks, the activists become as quiet as a socialist at a tea party.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.