Exhaust fumes from trains and taxis, coupled with toxic dust kicked up by construction works, are endangering the health of commuters, tourists and workers, experts say - particular people with asthma, lung or heart conditions.
Politicians have reacted with shock and horror to the revelations, and are demanding urgent action to protect the 25 million people who use the station annually. Network Rail, the company the runs Waverley, says it is doing what it can to cut the pollution.
Waverley, situated in a low, glass-roofed hollow in the centre of the capital, is one of the busiest stations in the UK outside London. It now seems it may also be one of the most polluted.
It is the only British mainline railway station that still allows vehicles to drive right inside it, including taxis, private cars and delivery trucks. And it is three-quarters of the way through a four-year, £100 million overhaul, which means almost continual cutting, drilling and pounding confining passengers under scaffolding and awnings.
To help assess the risks of air pollution, Network Rail commissioned consultants to monitor the station continually for three weeks in October and November. Their report was released to the Sunday Herald last week, after repeated requests.
Scientists measured levels of nitrogen dioxide, a gas emitted by vehicle exhausts that damages the lungs, blood and immune system, at four locations around the concourse. They found average levels varying from 205 to 304 micrograms per cubic metre, compared to the annual average “air quality standard” of 40 required by European law.
According to experts, the levels to which many passengers were exposed at peak times would be much higher than another legal limit of 200 micrograms per cubic metre, set for one hour’s exposure. The concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the station were four to six times higher than in the streets nearby.
Scientists also found high concentrations of tiny particles known as PM10s, which inflame lung tissue and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. They were nearly twice as high as the air quality standard, and up to ten times higher than in surrounding streets.
Highly toxic diesel pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, were four times higher than the relevant air quality standard, according to the Network Rail report (see table below). They are blamed for causing cancers.
“The levels of air pollution at Waverley station are significantly higher than in the surrounding streets, and may breach internationally-agreed air quality standards,” said Dr Sean Semple, a leading air pollution expert from the University of Aberdeen.
“Pollution levels measured within the station could pose risks to people with asthma or heart and lung conditions. The risks need to be further investigated, and Network Rail should continue to do what it can to minimise pollution.”
Semple was particularly concerned about the levels of nitrogen dioxide. He said they were high enough to irritate the airways of people with asthma and other respiratory diseases exposed for only short periods.
He called on Network Rail to find more ways of reducing the emissions. “Switching train and taxi engines off when they are not required would be a first, positive step,” he said.
Another air pollution specialist, Dr Stefan Reis from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology near Edinburgh, walked around Waverley for 50 minutes last Monday with pollution monitors in a small backpack. He found concentrations of very tiny particles known as PM2.5s associated with diesel emissions two or three times higher than in nearby streets.
“Evidence from epidemiological studies suggests that these fine particles contribute to worsening asthma and causing other respiratory diseases when people are exposed to high levels over a long period of time,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Several politicians have written to Network Rail, demanding detailed information about air pollution at the station. “As a regular user of Waverley station, I am horrified,” said the Scottish Nationalist MEP, Alyn Smith.
“The European standards are set to protect health and they should be met. Public health cannot be put at risk in this way, and this must be dealt with.”
Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP for Lothian, described the pollution as “shocking” and accused Network Rail of “brushing aside” public concerns. “I hope this research by the Sunday Herald shocks them into action,” she said.
“They need to look at ways to reduce the air pollution from happening in the first place.” It was “ludicrous” to expect people working in the station, who have the most exposure, to tolerate the conditions, she argued.
“Waverley is an international gateway to Scotland,” she said. “Of course there will be emissions from trains and taxis but public health must come first.”
Network Rail accepted that it was “extremely difficult” to keep air pollution down to the levels found on Edinburgh streets. The station was very busy handling around 700 trains a day, most of which were driven by diesel engines.
Nevertheless a series of measures were being introduced that would help cut emissions, including increased rail electrification, vehicle access restrictions and improved ventilation. During the renovation works, more than 20 extractor fans were running continually above platforms to boost airflow.
Taxi drivers were encouraged not to keep their engines on while stationary, and train engines were switched off after idling for 15 minutes. The pollution now was not as bad as it was in previous years, Network Rail argued.
Its study showed that pollution levels were within the legal limits for workers. “We have conducted a detailed monitoring exercise to assess air quality within the station and we are confident that the conditions do not present a risk to staff or passengers,” said a company spokesman.
“Rail is already the greenest form of transport and we are committed to further improving air quality within the station by limiting the amount of time trains can run their engines while stationary in Waverley, and restricting vehicle access to the station,” he added.
“The new station roof is also substantially better ventilated than in the past, while the number of electric services using the station will increase in the years ahead as more of the Scottish network is electrified, further reducing the number of diesel engines using the station.”
The air that thickens and chokes at Waverley station
“My chest tightens up and I can smell the diesel. I can feel the air warm and thicken.”
He was standing amidst the noise and bustle on the main concourse, a few metres away from the ticket barriers where Network Rail has measured the highest levels of air pollution in the station.
Behind him, old diesel trains lined up on the platforms to belch tiny toxic particles into the faces of teeming passengers. To one side, strong-smelling new tarmac was being loudly laid on a traffic ramp with flames, steam and a host of machines.
Around the corner, more than a dozen taxis waited in a long queue for customers, most of their engines idling, leaving an almost tangible pall of fumes hanging in the air. Even the Christmas tree seemed to be sagging.
It was just an ordinary contaminated afternoon at Waverley. When passengers were told that the levels of pollution around them breached air quality standards and could endanger health, they were worried - and occasionally philosophical.
Jennifer Neil (30) from Paisley was feeding her two-year-old girl, Rosie, an orange in her buggy while she waited for her husband. “You get pollution pretty much everywhere you go,” she said.
“You just have to go to the streets in the city and you can smell it. You know the streets of Glasgow, like Hope Street, that you should avoid when you’re pushing the buggy.”
Neil, who is pregnant with her second child, thought that Network Rail ought to be doing more to reduce pollution at the station. “I think people should be concerned,” she said.
Beth, a 54-year-old charity worker, was on her way home to Whitley Bay in North Tyneside after a celebratory dinner in Edinburgh. She too was asthmatic, and didn’t want her surname to be used.
“I’ve got my inhaler with me,” she said. “I think this is an issue which people should be worried about.”
She suggested that pollution counts should be publicly displayed, like temperatures and weather, at railway stations and other places where there might be problems. “That would help people like me know where the hotspots are so that we can avoid them”, she argued.
“In an ideal world, that’s what should happen,” she added. “In an ideal world.” The expression on her face suggested that she thought there was little chance of that actually happening.
The question now is whether or not Network Rail will take any notice of her concerns, and those of the millions of others that pass through Waverley, breathing its polluted air.
Air pollution levels at Waverley station
pollutant / levels measured in the station (micrograms per cubic metre) / air quality standard (micrograms per cubic metre)
Nitrogen dioxide / 205-304 / 40
Tiny particles (PM10) / 73-92 / 50
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) / 0.00107 / 0.00025
source: Network Rail
A copy of Network Rail’s report on air pollution can be downloaded here (934KB pdf).
This story was followed up by The Scotsman.