Diesel particulates kill! Time to get freight onto rail

The article below first appeared as a comment piece in Fremantle Herald. It was written by Barry Healy on behalf of the Road 2 Rail group.

On June 13 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, confirmed that diesel engine exhaust is a Category 1 carcinogen - in the same hazard category as asbestos and cigarette smoke.

It once again poses the question of how the Fremantle Port freight task is to be achieved: by truck or by train?

What is more, with state and federal elections coming in 2013 we have the right to demand of all political parties and responsible authorities a direct answer to the question: what are you going to do to reduce the particulate burden on Fremantle?

The Fremantle Port Authority forecasts a doubling of its throughput of containers to 1.2 million by 2020 - and a tripling by 2030.

If we continue with the business-as-usual approach to transport planning then the lion's share of these extra container movements will be on our roads. Imagine three times the current volume of trucks on our roads in less than twenty years from now.

There are welcome plans to make some minor upgrades to rail infrastructure, and the absolute number of containers carried by rail will increase. But it's still fiddling around the edges. There is no plan to dramatically shift the overall share to rail. There is no target.

WA's transport planning authorities express vague support for rail transport, but in practice have a clear preference for trucks; no matter the cost to the environment, human health or urban fabric.

The IARC research looked at workers in eight mining facilities. The findings are important not only for miners, the authors write, but also “for urban populations worldwide.”
The research says that exposures “in highly polluted cities approximates cumulative exposures experienced by underground miners with low exposures in our study.”

It continues: “Because such workers had at least a 50% increased lung cancer risk, our results suggest that the high air concentrations of elemental carbon reported in some urban areas may confer increased risk of lung cancer.”

Fremantle is on track to becoming just such a highly polluted city if the current state and federal government preference for truck transport continues. Rail freight is hundreds of times less polluting than trucks, which makes rail the most important part of the solution to the Fremantle Port freight task problem.

The statement by Dr Christopher Portier, Chairman of the IARC working Group, must be taken as a warning by our planning authorities. “The scientific evidence was compelling and the Working Group’s conclusion was unanimous: diesel engine exhaust causes lung cancer in humans,” he said.

Dr Portier continued, “Given the additional health impacts from diesel particulates, exposure to this mixture of chemicals should be reduced worldwide.”

In WA we are lucky to possess world-class expertise in the area of diesel particulates at the Curtin Health Innovation Research Institute. The Institute has pioneered methods of testing for spatial and temporal concentrations of diesel particulates in underground mining in WA. Its know-how could be transferred to similarly testing Fremantle air quality, again, if only we had the political leadership.

It is ironic that research is so centred on the mining environment. The Chamber of Minerals and Energy is working on a guideline document for diesel particulate exposure in WA mines right now. This means Fremantle's FIFO workers will be better protected against particulate exposure at work than they will be at home in their beds!

Because of the lacklustre attitude of the current government towards freight rail transport the trains going to Fremantle port at the moment use out-dated, noisy rolling stock, which makes rail transport unattractive to some residents.

However, there are now in WA thousands of modern rail wagons that limit noise emissions to European standards and there are dozens of newly imported locomotives that are engineered to the same exacting standards. We could significantly reduce the noise problem of trains travelling through West End simply by phasing out the outmoded rolling stock and locomotives.

In the longer term the replacement of the Fremantle Traffic Bridge is a marvellous opportunity to prioritise rail transport to the port. There is $26 billion in the Infrastructure Australia coffers that can be accessed for rail freight projects.

By incorporating a rail freight component into the bridge replacement WA could dip into those funds, which Infrastructure Australia is anxious to disperse. But the WA government has so far failed to apply for Infrastructure Australia grants.

Of course there are other obstacles to shifting the majority of containers from road to rail. We will need a whole series of distribution hubs connected to the port by rail; from which containers are then delivered by road to their final destination.

This will require serious new investment, but it would be less that the billions of dollars being spent on freeway construction to the detriment of public transport and rail freight.
The WA Gateway project, a Los Angeles vision of fly-overs and spaghetti junctions centred on the airport, will consume $1 billion in taxpayers money. Meanwhile the railway to the airport is postponed to the never-never.

How long will we continue to subsidise the road transport and construction industries at the expense or our lives, environment and communities?

The failure of our authorities to seriously plan for increasing the usage of rail transport to the Port will take Fremantle in exactly the wrong direction regarding diesel particulate pollution. Fremantle will be swamped with what is now known to be a carcinogen.

It is time to say: Turn back; you are going the wrong way!

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