Metra will clear the air in its train cars

Metra riders walk alongside track 4 on Tuesday at Union Station. In the wake of a Tribune investigation, the rail service has said it will install new high-efficiency filters to reduce the amount of airborne soot in its train cars. The filters will not affect how much soot is in the air on station platforms, however. (José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

Metra riders walk alongside track 4 on Tuesday at Union Station. In the wake of a Tribune investigation, the rail service has said it will install new high-efficiency filters to reduce the amount of airborne soot in its train cars. The filters will not affect how much soot is in the air on station platforms, however. (José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

Railroad to install high-efficiency filters to reduce soot after Tribune investigation.

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune.

By Michael Hawthorne, Tribune reporter

Metra appears to have found a way to dramatically cleanup the air inside its stainless-steel cars, but spikes of lung- and heart-damaging diesel pollution will remain a lingering problem on the platforms at Chicago’s major rail stations.

In response to a Tribune investigation, the rail service is switching to more efficient air filters that testing shows can reduce the average amount of diesel soot inside its cars by 75 percent during outbound trips. The new filters are among several equipment changes studied during the past six months to curb exposure to noxious smoke from Metra’s fleet of dirty, disco-era locomotives.

The results are promising enough that Metra plans to spend $200,000 a year — less than two-hundredths of 1 percent of its $1.04 billion budget — to equip all of its cars with high-efficiency filters that screen out diesel pollution. The filters will be installed in every car within 90 days.

“We care about our customers, and we’re showing by our actions that we take seriously the concerns you brought to our attention,” Alex Clifford, Metra’s executive director, said in an interview.

Researchers estimate that more than half of people’s daily exposure to diesel pollution comes during their commute. More than 245,000 commuters move through Chicago’s three downtown stations every weekday.

Tiny soot particles, so small that thousands could fit on the period at the end of this sentence, can lodge deeply in the lungs and penetrate the bloodstream. Breathing in even small amounts can inflame the lungs and trigger asthma attacks; chronic exposure can cause cancer, heart attacks, brain damage and premature death.

Metra employee unions have raised concerns about diesel pollution for decades. But until now little was done in response.

“We’ve got complaints about the trains at Union Station going back to the early 1970s,” said Paul Piekarski, a statewide official with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union. “It’s time to fix this problem once and for all.”

During the latest round of testing, Metra consultants determined that more efficient filters, classified as MERV 13 by an industry rating system, were the only fix that substantially reduced the amount of diesel soot breathed in by commuters. Metra also tested hoods over air intakes, shields that deflected exhaust to the sides of the engine and equipment that automatically shut down ventilation systems during stops.

Without the filters, soot levels averaged about 67 micrograms per cubic meter in the first car behind the locomotive, according to a Metra slide presentation. The average amount of pollution dropped to about 16 micrograms per cubic meter once the more efficient filters were in place.

The filters also smoothed out spikes of diesel pollution to about 24 micrograms per cubic meter, down from 92.

By contrast, typical soot levels in urban areas like Chicago range between 1 and 2 micrograms per cubic meter.

“Even if we bought a brand-new locomotive, it might not solve the problem without these more-efficient filters,” Clifford said….

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