Coal train pollution 'signature' study

During July 2013, community members monitored particle pollution from coal trains in residential areas of Newcastle and the Lower Hunter. ABC’s science program Catalyst filmed the study and interviewed residents, health experts and air pollution scientists.

The Coal Train Signature Study responds to community concerns about the health impact of coal dust in the world’s largest coal port. More than 30,000 people reside and 25,000 children attend school within 500 metres of the coal corridor between Rutherford and the Newcastle Port.

Particle pollution contributes to cardiovascular and respiratory ailments, including asthma, hospital admissions and premature death. Any increase in particle concentrations results in a corresponding increase in these health impacts and there is no threshold below which these impacts are not caused.

The study was conducted by the Dust and Health Committee of the Coal Terminal Action Group, an alliance of 21 community groups. It was crowd-funded by more than 100 donations.

Using industry-standard air quality monitoring equipment, community members monitored particle pollution levels at three residential locations beside the coal corridor as 165 trains passed by. We had expert assistance to operate the monitoring equipment and analyse the data. Our findings characterise the ‘pollution signature’ of loaded and unloaded coal trains compared to background (or ‘no train’) pollution levels.

Take action now. Click here to send a letter to Premier Barry O'Farrell, urging the Premier to require the coal industry to cover and wash wagons. 


A total of 73 coal trains were observed during the three days of monitoring. The corresponding pollution data was analysed to generate ‘signatures’ which depict particle concentrations before, and during the trains’ pass by. All coal train signatures were associated with a significant increase in PM10 particle pollution levels. In the case of Signatures 1 and 5, this represents increases of 94% and 427% respectively for loaded coal trains. Signature 6 increased PM10 concentrations significantly, up to 1210%. In sum, 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.

Recommendations to the NSW Government

  1. Direct the state’s coal industry to cover and wash all loaded and unloaded coal wagons
  2. Suspend assessment of the proposed fourth coal terminal (T4)
  3. Commission an independent assessment of the health impacts of particle pollution in the Hunter to assess the social and economic impacts of current particle concentrations and model the impacts of the proposed fourth coal terminal (T4). 

Online media and resources

Download the full report here.