RHAMC Statement: Cleaning up Metra's Pollution

Below is the statement made by Joel Africk, president and CEO of Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago, at Senator Durbin's November 8, 2010, press conference. The conference was held in response to a Chicago Tribune story that revealed unsafe levels of diesel pollution inside Metra trains

Statement of Joel J. Africk

President and CEO, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago
November 8, 2010

Good morning. My name is Joel Africk, and I am president and CEO of Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. At Respiratory Health Association, we develop programs and advocate for people with chronic lung diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and we promote policies to help clean the air we all breathe.

We applaud Sen. Durbin on today's call to action to clean up the diesel pollution affecting the hundreds of thousands of commuters who use the Metra's Ogilvie Transportation Center and Union Station each day. Breathing diesel exhaust fumes at the levels detected by Chicago Tribune and reported this past weekend is profoundly dangerous for people with lung disease and it can have long term health effects for all of us. We also congratulate and thank Chicago Tribune and WGN News for their excellent work on this story.

The diesel pollution at Chicago's Metra stations is a result of two problems: Metra's aging fleet of locomotives -- many of which date back to the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was President -- and ventilation systems that are inadequate to get rid of the emissions caused by those old locomotives when they are in the station. (Chicago Tribune actually found that soot levels on our trains got worse after they left the station, and no amount of ventilation can solve that problem.)

Metra operates more than 140 diesel locomotives in the Chicago area -- many of which are in constant use -- and virtually none of them are equipped with the latest technology to reduce diesel emissions. Taken together, the old and dirty engines and inadequate ventilation systems combine for a toxic commute for Chicago's commuters.

The ultimate solution to this problem will come from financial support to clean up the Metra locomotive fleets. We very much hope that the new Federal Transportation bill will recognize the importance of the health of our city's rail commuters. After all, we don't want them all driving to work. A transportation bill that upgrades these workhorse commuter locomotives to be low emissions and begins to replace the oldest ones in Metra's fleet will improve the air for everyone.

In the interim, however, the solution must come in the form of improved ventilation at Metra's downtown stations. The layout of our downtown commuter train stations, where trains are pulling into ground level enclosures, demands better ventilation for now, while we work with Congress and our regulatory officials to clean up the trains.

Simply stated, we cannot hold our breath -- literally -- while we wait for a long term solution to this problem.

Read more about Respiratory Health Association's diesel advocacy on our Diesel Pollution pages