The case for covering and washing coal trains

The Problem:

The 2013 Senate Inquiry into health impacts of health of air quality recommended that “state and territory governments require the coal industry to implement covers on all coal wagon fleets” throughout Australia be covered to protect community health (Recommendation 6).

Why did the senators recommend this measure?

Uncovered coal wagons pass through populated areas in several locations in Australia. More than 4 million uncovered coal wagons pass through Newcastle each year. These trains expose communities to harmful emissions of coarse (PM10) and fine (PM2.5) particles. Particle pollution is a major contributor to respiratory and cardiovascular health problems, causing asthma, hospital admissions and premature death.

According to BNSF - the peak body for coal transportation companies in the United States - up to 3% of coal is lost in transit. This has been confirmed in Australian studies. In 2008, Queensland Rail commissioned Connell Hatch to evaluate the environmental benefits of covering coal wagons. That report concluded that covering wagons would result in a “99% reduction in coal dust emissions from the top of wagons, the major emission source."

Marine scientists have expressed concern to the Queensland Government about the toxic impacts of coal dust washing into coastal waterways. In the USA, successful legal cases have prosecuted coal transportation companies for failing to prevent coal from entering waterways from uncovered coal wagons.

The Australian Rail and Track Corporation (ARTC) is a wholly owned corporation of the Commonwealth Government. ARTC holds the lease on rail corridors in New South Wales which it leases – in turn – to several coal rail transport companies. The NSW Environmental Protection Authority issues ARTC with a licence which includes a Pollution Reduction Program (PRP) to assess the air pollution caused by coal trains. In 2012 and 2013, ARTC conducted short-term pollution monitoring at sites along the Newcastle and Hunter Valley coal corridor. Expert reviewers concluded unloaded coal trains caused average concentrations of total suspended particles (TSP), PM10 and PM2.5 to increase by 8-10% (ATASU 2013).

Large, uncovered coal train

 Image: an uncovered coal wagon. Source: Dean Osland.


Citizen science

Community groups in Newcastle crowd-funded their Coal Train Signature study in 2013. Hiring Osiris monitoring equipment, the study team monitored PM10, PM2.5 and PM1 concentrations as loaded and unloaded coal trains passed. Their analysis (Higginbotham et al 2013) found spikes of PM10, PM2.5 and PM1 as coal trains pass. All coal train signatures were associated with a significant increase in particle pollution levels.  In two instances, this represented increases of 94% and 427% respectively for loaded coal trains. Unloaded trains increased PM10 concentrations by as much as 1210%. The study concluded that coal trains increase PM10 levels by between 94% and 1210%. While coal trains pass, particle pollution concentrations increase up to 13 times pre coal train levels. [This study received national television attention on ABC’s ‘Catalyst’ science program.]



In 2011, the New South Wales Government commissioned environmental consultants Katestone to develop a best practice guide of measures to control coal dust from pit to port. Their comprehensive report recommended covering wagons (p.193), along with ‘profiling’ and other measures to reduce coal spillage during loading and transit. To reduce coal spillage and fine particle pollution,

In response to community campaigns for covering wagons, the coal industry and some government agencies advocate the cheaper alternative of veneering coal trains with substances based on latex or organic material such as pineapple juice. There is no independent evidence that veneering delivers the result of lowered coal dust emissions from coal wagons.


References and useful information sources:

You can download this fact sheet as a .PDF file by clicking here