Covid-19: could improving air quality at railway stations boost recovery?

Adele Berti 22 April 2020 (Last Updated April 21st, 2020 16:51)

Data analytics company EMSOL has been working with Network Rail to monitor air quality in train stations and come up with a strategy to bring down pollution around them. The project could largely benefit patients recovering from Covid-19 as well as people with respiratory issues, who are highly exposed to poor air quality in busy areas.

Covid-19: could improving air quality at railway stations boost recovery?
EMSOL has been monitoring air quality at Birmingham New Street. Credit: Paul Hudson (via Wikimedia Commons).

At the beginning of the month, a study by the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that people who live in areas with poor air quality are more likely to die from the coronavirus pandemic.                                         

The first known research to correlate Covid-19 with air pollution, it shows that a post-coronavirus world won’t be sustainable without improvements to air quality – especially because the disease could cause lung damage for up to six months after being contracted.

While it may not be a primary area of intervention, the rail industry will eventually have to play its part in this transition with initiatives such as replacing diesel locomotives and decreasing emissions within and near its stations.

British air quality action business EMSOL is currently working to help accelerate this process in the UK. Throughout a nine-month Innovate UK project in collaboration with Network Rail and the East West Rail Alliance, the company has monitored emissions at Birmingham New Street and Bletchley stations to then provide insights on possible areas of intervention.

An issue that existed long before Covid-19

Even before the coronavirus outbreak and Harvard University’s recent study, low air quality levels have long been affecting millions of people with asthma and other respiratory issues in the UK.

As EMSOL rail and station innovation expert Marcus Mayers explains, this directly concerns the railways, which are used by thousands of commuters every day. Because train systems should be open and available for all people of the public to use, they can’t be barriers around those who can’t breathe properly,” he says.

Rail transport is currently down by almost 95% in the UK as a result of the government’s lockdown measures. But when operations return to normality and trains go back to tracks, air quality is likely to worsen once again, putting Covid-19 patients and those affected by other respiratory conditions in danger.

“Without a doubt, there are more and more emerging direct correlations between air pollution and respiratory problems,” claims EMSOL marketing and sales adviser Charles Watson. “And in this case, it’s either by making the lungs more susceptible to getting the virus or by making recovery from Covid-19 take longer.”

Finally, another key problem is also that the public is unaware of the risks. “There is no information around air quality for passengers to make decisions,” says Mayers. “And when you talk about decisions, that’s for people travelling but also for operators. Without the information, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

EMSOL’s work at Birmingham New Street

According to Watson, the starting point of EMSOL’s work with Network Rail is that monitoring air quality alone is no longer enough. “Everybody [previously] invested a tonne in air quality monitors and the problem is that once a quarter or once a month, they produce a report that shows pollution breaches at a specific time,” he says, “but there’s nothing actionable in that, it’s all very retrospective and it’s pretty low quality.”

As a result, EMSOL is proposing to connect “air quality data and air monitor data to actual vehicles” to identify the specific correlation between a breach and the time and place where it occurred. “We’ve driven air quality monitor makers to get much more real-time delivery of the data, so they’re pulling air quality more frequently in real time,” he continues. “And then when you marry it with the vehicle location, suddenly, you’re not just hand wringing about an air quality problem. You know what train specifically is causing a problem.”

Trials of the procedure recently took place at Bletchley and Birmingham New Street stations where EMSOL installed equipment to monitor sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, noise and particulates. “The [information collected] is fed through a mobile phone’s 3G SIM card up into our cloud server,” explains Mayers, “where artificial intelligence then analyses it and combines it with Darwin feed [the UK railways’ customer service information engine] so we know which trains are in the station at the time that we get the spikes in pollution occurring.”

The following stage involves identifying the particular train or asset causing the breach. This allows EMSOL to improve traceability and to compile a historic record of breaches at the station, which could then be used to predict future peaks of pollution. “By understanding the behaviours of particular trains over a long period of time, machine learning will then extrapolate and identify points where similar events are going to occur in the future,” he continues.

What needs to change in the future

With experience of monitoring air quality at two rail stations and funding from Innovate UK, EMSOL is now looking to expand its work to other construction sites and mainlines while also planning for the introduction of personal monitors for staff. “By combining personal monitors on a small sample of people – with monitors put at various places around the network like that depots, concourses and the places where these operations congregate – we can put together a whole picture,” explains Mayers. “And then work with unions and organisations to come up with mitigations to improve the situation.”

However, achieving this purpose is no easy task. “When we talk to UK train operating companies, they always say they would really like to do something about this but their contracts don’t include anything around air quality,” he says, “because when they [started out] years ago, air quality wasn’t a thing – lung damage wasn’t a thing.” This puts operators “ahead of the government in wanting to do something about it” yet unable to obtain funding as a result of their contracts.

With the government currently focused on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, the chances of addressing this issue in the immediate future are low. Yet once the crisis is over, a change in the way the system works is imperative. As Mayers puts it, “The Department for Transport (DfT) and British ministers for transport will need to come to get to grips with the fact that they’re going to have to spend money to make sure the air quality is appropriate for recovering people.”

In the long term, railways in the UK and across the world are expected to evolve – much like everything else – as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “Whatever was normal six months ago will never be normal again,” says Mayers. “So behaviours change, commuting patterns will change.”

This will force the government to rethink how the railways work and to potentially update timetables, services and more. “One of the factors which should go into deciding what a future timetable should be around air quality,” he concludes. “There are a number of questions that need to be defined by the policy and decision-makers. Only then can people like us come along and help them deliver specific services.”