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Clearing the Air on Idling

by on December 11, 2010

Next to noise and vibration, one of the most frequent complaints of people who live in proximity to rail operations is concern about exposure to diesel emissions from locomotives.

Particulate matter from diesel exhaust, known as PM10, can cause eye and respiratory irritation. These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. This form of pollution has been also found to damage plants and discolour buildings.


The discoloration can be noted as a very fine, black, sooty residue.

We’ve heard from people who live in around railways or rail yards who have noted this residue on decks, roofs, and other exterior surfaces of homes. Leaving windows open for ventilation can draw exhaust indoors.

It’s disturbing to see this residue and realize that it’s been circulating in the air that people breathe.

The public has been largely conscious of this problem for quite some time now.

But here’s another perspective on the issue: In a recent edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, railway workers were specifically included in reference to having a heightened risk of developing lung cancer due to on-the-job exposure to diesel exhaust.

The study, Exposure to Diesel Motor Exhaust and Lung Cancer Risk in a Pooled Analysis from Case-Control Studies in Europe and Canada, found that workers with the greatest lifetime exposure to diesel emissions had a 31% higher risk of developing lung cancer compared to people without such occupational exposure.

It’s believed that chronic exposure can contribute to, or worsen various respiratory illnesses, including asthma.

Diesel exhaust is already considered a probable human carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (see Diesel Exhaust in New England) as well as by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization.

With evidence mounting as to the possible and serious health implications of exposure to diesel particulate matter, it’s critical that locomotive idle reduction technology be more widely implemented to protect the public – and railway employees.

It’s win-win all the way around…railways could recoup the investment in technology in the form of fuel cost savings over time, railway workers would consistently have a safer, healthier work environment, and residents benefit from the considerable reduction in locomotive noise and vibration that this technology brings with it, and better air quality.

Railway companies could therefore reasonably expect resolution to many of the complaints concerning this aspect of their operations. This could contribute to better relationships between railways and communities. What a thought…

It’s all the more ironic that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has recently stated that the magnitude of lung cancer risk associated with diesel exhaust was equal to the risks linked to habitual exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke.

For those residents living in areas without benefit of any sort of locomotive idle reduction technology in place, the resulting diesel exhaust that can waft towards their homes, is, in itself, their own version of second-hand smoke…and now, more than ever, not just simply an idle concern…

© Copyright 2010

  1. Great piece of research, trainjane, on locomotive diesel exhaust. Indeed, this is the silent culprit. Many folks who live next to rail lines and rail yards are most annoyed with the noise and vibration, but carcinogenic diesel exhaust may well be a far greater hazard.

    • trainjane permalink

      Thank you Mr. Kristensen, we are all hoping that diesel emissions will not become a serious problem for the residents in your community, and that consideration for the nature conservancy that you and your family established there years before the rail expansion was ever considered will be given top priority in containing these emissions away from sensitive natural habitat.

      (Note: John Kristensen’s story was the topic of our blog post, No Cando, and he has his own blog now, Railroaded that details his ongoing battle with the building of a new rail yard to store Imperial Oil’s tank cars by his home and the concern of its impact on the conservancy he and his family are trying to protect)

  2. Jeff Willsie permalink

    Hi Train Jane
    I dont like diesel exaust myself.Both CP & CN are installing Smart Starts & i think all new locos have a smart start. The reason the railways demolished most of the engine houses was because it was cheaper to let the locos idle than pay the property taxes.Untill shuch time as the railways are electified engine houses should be property tax exempt.
    It is time to start lobbying the feds to start building nuclear generating plants to electrify the railways.
    OSR built 2 engine houses & osr locos are not sitting around idling.
    All in all i would say trucks create far,far more emmissions than trains per ton mile. Time to put more tons on rail.
    Untill the railways are electrfied, if you are a neighbour & dont like the exaust,you should move,for your own health.the feds are not going to shut down the railway because without trains then there would be much, much more truck exaust.
    If you dont like the noise & vibration you should also move as these issues will not recede with the eventual electrification of the railways.
    The simple fact is the railways move the products of Canada,for the economic bennefit of Canada & NIMBYS are not going to stop that.
    Jeff Willsie
    Pres OSR

    • trainjane permalink

      Hello Mr. Willsie,

      CN and CP have been working on installing Smartstart for years, the last statistics we found indicated that a considerable percentage of locomotives were yet to have idle reduction technology implemented.

      The ones that do have this feature can have a very positive impact in not only saving the railways money for fuel that otherwise would simply burn off into the atmosphere, but on helping alleviate complaints from neighbouring resident stakeholders (yes, stakeholders, not NIMBY’s as you term them) regarding noise and air pollution from locomotives that could otherwise idle for hours, and generate an annoying, pervasive vibration – inside homes – as a result.

      The environment is everyone’s responsibility, Mr. Willsie, and it is a very sad day when the president of a rail company would have profits trump concerns over the air that we all breathe.

      As for taxes, we cannot agree with you there either. If anything, we’d like to see rail companies realize further benefits through the federal government through incentives for year-round idle reduction implementation, and surcharges for locomotives that do not have Smartstart, Hotstart, or any of the options that are available.

      Leaving locomotives idle for hours – or sometimes even days – on end is a practice that is not sustainable, and completely at odds with the goal of government at all levels to reduce greenhouse gases. It’s also at odds with an industry that promotes itself as being a green alternative to the trucking industry.

      If there are any further tax cuts or incentives to be realized, perhaps it should go into helping railway and communities form meaningful partnerships to help address and resolve the challenges that are only going to continue to occur over time, due to the finite quantity of available land, particularly in urban areas.

      And as for your repeated calls, Mr. Willsie, for anyone who voices concern over rail practices and their impact to simply just move, our suggestion is that the only shift that must be made is one of attitude, towards a framework of constructive ideas and resolution of present problems, not further obstructions.

      We’d like to see you regard all residents who live in the footprint of your railway as stakeholders, and to treat them all accordingly. That would give everyone the break they all deserve…

  3. M.Bondy permalink

    I live in Windsor and have trains idle all night long behind my house in the winter months. My husband and I wake up with headaches all the time from the trains. We had no idea there was a problem when we purchased the house after my grandmother died. She lived in the house for 49 years. She died from lung cancer. I would love to know if it may have been caused from living for years by the trains. We need to stop this!! It can’t be good for our family or the environment

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