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Project to analyze and improve the air quality in underground rail

A European project will develop strategies to improve air quality in underground rail systems worldwide.

Taking samples on a platform of the metro in Barcelona metro.

The greatest 21st century challenge to air quality in our cities is the pollution produced by road traffic. In contrast, underground rail systems provide an environmental urban lifeline, enabling large numbers of people to commute through the city efficiently and without contaminating the air in the streets above. However, the question arises: we know that city outdoor air is contaminated, but how clean is the air breathed underground? Does the traffic pollution reach down into the metro tunnels and stations? Does the movement of the trains themselves affect air quality in the tunnels and platforms?

In order to answer these questions, the CSIC Air Quality Research Group at the Instituto de Diagnóstico Ambiental y Estudios del Agua (IDAEA), working closely with the local transport authority Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), is currently investigating air quality in the Barcelona metro system.

The results obtained so far indicate that air quality in stations is highly variable, depending on the complex interplay of such factors as station design and ventilating systems, and even the chemistry of brake pads used by the trains. Train frequency, the number of people on the platform, the depth of the station and its access to traffic-contaminated streets above all additionally affect air quality.  

The question of air quality in underground rail transport is not trivial: hundreds of millions of commuters in cities across the world use such systems daily, so any improvement in platform and train air is likely to produce significant health benefits. In this context, the European Union has recently awarded a LIFE project to the Barcelona CSIC group and TMB with the clearly defined objective of creating strategies to characterize and improve air quality in metro platforms and trains.

The project is named IMPROVE (Implementing Methodologies and Practices to Reduce air pollution Of the subway enVironmEnt) and will be led by Senior Researcher Teresa Moreno, who commented “IMPROVE will add to the overall integrated vision of our CSIC IDAEA research group to help clean up city air outdoors, indoors, and both above and below ground.”

An innovative aspect of the IMPROVE LIFE project will be the unusually close collaboration between a transport authority and government research group. Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona is strongly committed to the environmental cause and have already worked closely with the CSIC team.

The outcomes of the IMPROVE LIFE project will be communicated across the world and promoted in local meetings and international conferences. An air mitigation strategy document appropriate for underground transport systems will be produced, and distributed to representative transport authorities across the world. Apart from the obvious relevance to Europe, where around 60 cities have underground rail systems, the CSIC group is particularly interested in communicating their findings to countries in east Asia, notably Japan, South Korea, and, especially, China which is rapidly building new metro systems in its megacities.