Air quality monitoring of coal dust in rail corridors

A review of air quality monitoring studies in rail corridors and around rail systems in southern Queensland has shown that while coal dust and the influence of coal trains on dust levels has been detected, the levels of total dust (including coal dust) are well below air quality objectives for the protection of human health and amenity impacts. Additional dust mitigation measures implemented by all coal companies have been, and continue to be, effective in reducing the loss of coal dust from loaded rail wagons during transport.

Monitoring has shown no evidence of the passage of coal trains having an adverse impact on dust levels adjacent to the rail corridor. Most rail transport-related dust comes from re-suspension of particles from ground surfaces within the rail corridor by the air turbulence generated by passing trains of all types, not just coal trains.

Dust (from all sources) settling out adjacent to rail corridors in urban areas is made up primarily of mineral dusts (soil and rock) at levels of 50% or more. While early dust samples contained up to 20% coal, this has declined following implementation of the additional dust mitigation measures by coal producers and transporters. Coal dust is now rarely detected in dust samples taken adjacent to the rail corridor and any coal present comes predominantly from re-suspension of coal particles already in the soil in the rail corridor rather than direct loss from coal wagons.

Other dust types, typically found in the dust samples, include up to 45% black rubber dust from motor vehicle tyre wear, and biological dusts (plant and insect fragments) at 10–40%.

Below is a guide to coal dust and the monitoring that is taking place along the Western–Metropolitan rail corridor.

Download the rail corridor coal dust monitoring fact sheet (PDF, 71KB) for more information.

Air quality monitoring reports


An investigation of air quality in the Tennyson community adjacent to the rail corridor used by trains hauling coal from West Moreton coal mines to the Port of Brisbane was conducted by the then Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts (DSITIA) over the period 5 September to 5 October 2012. The investigation was commissioned by the former Department of Environment and Heritage Protection to investigate concerns raised by local residents about dust impacts from uncovered coal wagons.

A copy of the Tennyson Dust Monitoring Investigation report can be found at Tennyson Dust Monitoring Investigation Report.

Western–Metropolitan Rail Corridor

The Queensland Resources Council commissioned a coal dust monitoring program in response to coal dust complaints associated with rail transport along the Western–Metropolitan rail system, which is used by trains hauling coal from mines in the Clarence–Moreton and Surat basins in southern Queensland to the Port of Brisbane. The independent monitoring program is being conducted by scientists within the Queensland Government. The monitoring program was initially to be conducted in two phases:

  1. pre-veneering (March to April 2013) and post-veneering (May to June 2013) monitoring, and
  2. continuous monitoring over a period of 12 months.

However, the continuous monitoring stage which commenced in February 2014 has been extended and is currently funded until March 2022.

WMRC Pre and post-veneering monitoring programs (Phase 1)

Read the final Phase 1 report, Western–Metropolitan Rail Systems Coal Dust Monitoring Program (PDF, 3.4MB).

The investigation acquired data to assess both health and dust nuisance impacts in the community, together with a determination of the contribution of coal particles to overall dust levels.

The monitoring results showed that ambient particle concentrations complied with ambient air quality objectives at all rail corridor monitoring sites during both the pre- and post-veneering monitoring periods. The major influence on the levels of particles was not rail transport emissions, but other urban particle emission sources.

Insoluble dust deposition rates did not exceed the trigger levels for dust nuisance during both pre- and post-veneering monitoring.

Coal particles typically accounted for about 10% of the total surface coverage in the deposited dust samples, with the amount present in individual samples ranging from trace levels up to 20% of the total surface coverage.

A general trend was observed toward decreasing dust deposition rates and lower levels of coal dust in the deposited dust samples at most monitoring sites following the implementation of rail wagon veneering.

Queensland Health has concluded that, for people living along the rail corridor, the overall dust concentrations from all particle sources measured during the investigation are unlikely to result in any additional adverse health effects.

The post-veneering monitoring report was peer reviewed by Dr. Neville Bofinger, retired member of the School of Natural Resource Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology and one of Australia’s leading air quality scientists. The peer review (PDF, 188KB) concluded that:

‘The study used appropriate methodology, experimental design and data analysis to reach its conclusions. The report is comprehensive and logical and is appropriately referenced. Conclusions which are drawn in the report are supported by the data.’

Several insightful comments were made by the peer reviewer, which were seen as beneficial to incorporate in the final report. A table showing the changes made to the report following peer review is provided in responses to the recommendations of the Independent Peer Review (PDF, 236KB).

Current WMRS continuous monitoring program (Phase 2)

Continuous monitoring on the rail corridor is now being conducted at the Cannon Hill Railway Station on the Brisbane Metropolitan rail line.

The purpose of this monitoring is to validate the effectiveness of coal dust mitigation measures being taken by the coal producers and transporters as outlined in the South West System Coal Dust Management Plan (PDF, 9.85MB), and to confirm that dust levels, particularly coal dust levels, continue to meet environmental standards.

The monitoring at this site involves:

  • continuous measurement of particles less than 10 micrometres in size (PM10) and particles less than 2.5 micrometres in size (PM2.5) for direct comparison against guidelines for protection of human health
  • continuous measurement of total suspended particles (TSP) for direct comparison against recommended guidelines for avoidance of dust nuisance impacts
  • 30-day samples of deposited dust to determine the amount and composition of dust settling out adjacent to the rail corridor
  • continuous measurement of wind conditions to assist with identification of sources of particles.

Deposited dust sampling is also being carried out at Sherwood and Toowoomba. Prior to 2020, sampling was conducted at Fairfield, but in 2020 it was necessary to relocate the Fairfield deposited dust sampling equipment to Sherwood due to Cross River Rail project works commencing at Fairfield.

The continuous PM10, PM2.5 and TSP monitoring data is available via the Queensland Government live air data service. The website data is updated hourly.

Both the continuous and monthly dust deposition data is reported in the South East Queensland monthly air quality bulletins following data validation.

Reports covering the monitoring at Cannon Hill, Fairfield/Sherwood and Toowoomba between February 2014 and December 2015 (PDF, 5.8MB), 2016 (PDF, 1.9MB), 2017 (PDF, 1.65MB), 2018 (PDF, 1.05MB) 2019 (PDF, 1.06MB) and 2020 (PDF, 1.71MB) and 2021 (PDF, 1.02MB) are available.

Dr. Neville Bofinger was again engaged to peer review the 2014 to 2015 monitoring report. His peer review (PDF, 43 KB) concluded that:

"The study used appropriate methodology and monitoring design. The report is comprehensive, logical and properly referenced. The weight of evidence confirms that the conclusions in the report are valid and well supported by the data."

The monitoring results have showed that ambient particle concentrations predominantly complied with ambient air quality criteria for protection of human health and avoidance of amenity degradation at Cannon Hill over the seven-year period. None of the very infrequent exceedances of air quality criteria (not usually more than one day per year for each particle fraction) were caused by rail transport.

In 2018 and 2019, while the number of exceedances of human health protection and amenity criteria increased, none were attributed to rail transport. Instead, the exceedances were almost all the result of region-wide windblown dust events and/or extensive bushfire smoke events triggered by dry conditions.

Re-suspension of particles from the rail track ballast and dry ground within the rail corridor by the air turbulence generated by passing trains of all types, not just coal haulage, was identified as the main air quality impact from rail transport.

Insoluble dust deposition rates have rarely exceeded the trigger level for dust nuisance (once at Cannon Hill in 2017 and one to two times per year in Toowoomba). All occasions when the dust nuisance trigger level was exceeded could be traced to dust sources other than rail transport.

Since 2015, coal dust has rarely been detected in deposited dust samples outside of the drier months from June to October. This is consistent with the source of the coal particles being predominantly re-suspension of coal particles present in the rail track ballast and soil in the rail corridor as the ground dries out rather than direct loss from rail wagons. This was especially noticeable in 2018, a particularly dry year, when annual coal dust deposition along the rail corridor increased slightly compared to previous years and the presence and percentage of coal dust coincided with drier periods of the year.

While dry conditions persisted in 2019, coal dust deposition rates decreased to the point where no coal dust was deposited in the period from August to December 2019. The most likely explanation for this is that the prolonged dry conditions resulted in the removal of most of the soil in the rail corridor that contained coal particles from historic losses, while the Coal Dust Management Plan actions have been effective in preventing any appreciable amounts of new coal being added to the rail corridor. This explanation was further supported by continuing low coal dust deposition levels across the rail corridor in 2020 and 2021.

Average coal dust deposition decreased to negligible levels (less than 0.1 mg/m2/day) at all three monitoring locations in 2021. Factors such as the easing of dry conditions, a 70 per cent reduction in coal haulage along the rail corridor, and continued Coal Dust Management Plan actions, resulted in very low coal dust deposition rates in 2021.

Other types of black particles, such as black rubber dust generated by tyre wear on nearby roads, are now present in higher proportions than coal particles in deposited dust samples. It is likely that these non-coal black particles play a greater role than coal in community perceptions of black dust nuisance.

The monitoring has demonstrated a very significant and sustained reduction in the mass of coal depositing from the air from the levels measured in the pre-veneering period before the Coal Dust Management Plan measures were implemented. Across the rail system as a whole, it is estimated that the average deposition rate of coal dust has fallen by more than 98 per cent on pre-veneering levels.

The monitoring has shown that implementation of the coal dust management plan measures, including load profiling and veneering, has been and continues to be highly effective in reducing the loss of coal dust from loaded rail wagons during transport.

The monitoring at Cannon Hill, Sherwood and Toowoomba remains ongoing (currently funded through to March 2023).

Jondaryan Rail Loading Facility

Dust monitoring was conducted at Jondaryan between March 2014 and August 2016. The Jondaryan site was located on the eastern side of Jondaryan township, and was installed in response to community concerns about the impacts of dust emissions from the Jondaryan Rail Loading Facility. The Jondaryan Rail Loading Facility is a bulk handling facility for transporting coal by train from the Darling Downs to the Port of Brisbane.

A preliminary report (PDF, 4.5MB) on the monitoring at Jondaryan over the period March 2014 to April 2015 is available.

Particle measurements during this period showed that ambient PM2.5 concentrations in the Jondaryan community complied with human health protection criteria, while TSP and PM10 concentrations exceeded dust nuisance and human health protection guidelines respectively on a number of occasions over this period. Levels of deposited dust exceeded the dust nuisance guideline for one monthly sample only during the reporting period.

Windblown dust was identified as the main contributor to particle level exceedances at the Jondaryan dust monitoring station. However, coal dust emissions from operations at Jondaryan Rail Load-out were not found to result in exceedances of the Environmental Protection Policy (Air) 2008 in the absence of emissions from other dust sources.

Dust emissions from road works on the Warrego Highway between Jondaryan and the rail loading facility affected the monitoring results at times between July and December 2014. For this reason, the original monitoring program timeframe was extended until August 2016.

Port of Brisbane

Information on air quality monitoring and a summary of particulate matter results covering the Port of Brisbane is also available. The Port Coal Dust Management Plan can also be accessed from this website.

Queensland Bulk Handling

Queensland Bulk Handling (QBH) is a coal export terminal located within the Port Of Brisbane. QBH stockpiles large quantities of coal within the facility and is required to meet the conditions specified by its environmental approval. QBH’s website provides further information on their dust management processes and monitoring program.


Coal rail contacts

Central Queensland coal rail network: Aurizon Limited
Telephone: 13 23 32

South West System coal rail network (SEQ): Queensland Rail:
Telephone: 13 16 17

Queensland Resources Council South West System Coal Dust Management Plan development and implementation; implementation of ongoing coal dust monitoring program.
Telephone: (07) 3295 9560

Coal terminal and port contacts

Abbot Point

Adani Terminal 1
Telephone: (07) 3223 4800

North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation
Telephone: 1300 129 255

Hay Point

Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal
Telephone: (07) 4943 8444

Hay Point Services Coal Terminal
Telephone: 1800 078 797

North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation
Telephone: 1300 129 255

Port of Gladstone

Gladstone Ports Corporation (Operator RG Tanna & Barney Point Coal Terminals)
Email: via Gladstone Ports Corporation website
Telephone: 1800 063 408

Port of Brisbane

Queensland Bulk Handling Pty Ltd (Terminal Operator)
Telephone: (07) 3107 4900

Port of Brisbane Pty Ltd (Port Manager)
Telephone: (07) 3258 4888

Air quality regulator

Department of Environment and Science
Telephone: Permit and Licence Management on 1300 130 372