VACUUMING has been rejected as a realistic option for the removal of coal build up on rail tracks in the Hunter Valley, following an investigation by the Australian Rail Track Corporation.
Its report found using industrial sized vacuums was “partially effective” in removing coal from the tracks and could improve the operational reliability of trains.
However the ARTC poured cold water on any suggestion the method could be rolled out on a wider scale.
“Vacuuming is a labour intensive and time consuming process,” the report said.
“Vacuuming over greater track lengths would significantly impact daily train movements and does not target or address the source of coal deposition.”
The ARTC was ordered to carry out the investigation by the Environmental Protection Authority as part of its pollution reduction program.
It was required to look at ways to remove coal on tracks leading away from unloading terminals at the Port of Newcastle, where the most coal accumulates.
It was ordered after a 2014 audit by University of Technology statistician Louise Ryan found a 10 per cent increase in particulate matter associated with the passing of both coal and freight trains.
Whether or not it had rained the previous day had a significant impact, suggesting the trains were stirring up dust that had settled on the tracks.
As part of the trial, the corporation installed a matting material at sites where large volumes of coal were known to fall onto the tracks. It stressed the sites were “not representative of the broader ARTC network.”
Industrial vacuuming was carried out at three “turnouts” along with a 100 metre straight section of track.
No other methods of removing coal were trialed.
University of Newcastle Associate Professor Nick Higginbotham said if vacuuming was not a feasible option the answer became to wash the trains before they left the coal terminal.
“If this research is used to make the decision that it’s beneficial and more efficient to clean the wagons before they leave then that’s a good thing.”
However he said he was concerned that the investigation was a “diversion” from the more pressing issue of covering coal wagons. He said it was disappointing the ARTC used its latest research to continue to promote the “unfounded” claim that coal trains did not contribute to particle pollution.
Meanwhile, the findings of two landmark Hunter dust studies are set to be handed down on April 27.
The EPA will hold a public briefing at Newcastle City Hall to present the findings of the Lower Hunter Particle Characterisation Study and Dust Deposition Study.