The MTA is piloting a new air filtration and purification system that the manufacturer claims can capture and kill 99.9998% of viruses and other germs through a three-stage process. The new system will soon be piloted in one LIRR train car, and is already being tested in two HVAC units of one Metro-North train car through the end of the year. If it's successful, it could roll out across all commuter and subway trains. Researchers with the Environmental Protection Agency will work with the MTA to test the technology and determine its effectiveness.
The new technology, created by Knorr Brake Company, is incorporated into the existing ventilation systems, and will "filter and purify air inside rail cars using an electrical field to generate a wave of ionized particles that destroy airborne viruses, bacteria and particulate matter, including COVID-19," according to the MTA. The system will also enhance in-car air filtration, "which already filters air 30 times an hour or once every 120 seconds, exceeding CDC standards" for everything from certain medical facilities to restaurants.
"For indoor ventilation, the number of fresh air exchanges per hour is one of the most important metrics," Dr. Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, said, adding that 30 times per hour is "impressive."
“Not only will this kill COVID-19, but it’s going to kill other viruses and other bacteria as well — the flu, common cold, all these types of pathogens will be destroyed with this system,” James Heimbuecher, Chief Mechanical Officer at Metro-North, said during a press preview on Thursday.
Despite fiscal uncertainty and a looming threat of major service cuts, if the pilot goes well, the MTA says they will move forward and install this filter on all 1,100 Metro-North train cars at an estimated cost of $13 million.
“MTA wants riders to know their safety and health are the top priority along with the health and safety of our employees, and we'll continue to innovate, a national and international leader in identifying and installing methods of protection to minimize any risk to health of our customers,” MTA spokesperson Tim Minton said.
“I think it is an impressive concept," MTA board member Norman Brown, who represents Metro-North riders, told Gothamist. "I feel the present system is very clean, far cleaner than the public would think. However, it involves somewhat of an admission that our present system is inadequate. This should leave the air in the trains with operating room quality aspiration." Brown added that making the public more comfortable with the train will help the MTA recover, however, expressed concerns that clean cars may not be enough right now.
“Until the riders are comfortable with the air in the offices, restaurants, pubs and theaters what will be the increase in ridership because we give them a super clean car?” Brown asked.
Like all MTA services, Metro-North ridership has been badly impacted by the pandemic. On Monday, the commuter line had only 20 percent the number of riders, compared to pre-pandemic levels.
“The first-in-the-nation innovative ventilation system that Metro-North is testing has the potential to be a game changer for protecting riders' and workers' health and getting people back on board," Lisa Daglian the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, wrote in a statement. She added that $12 billion in federal funding is still "desperately needed to continue developing and implementing these kinds of improvements... Our recovery hangs in the balance.”
In September, a new study found that there is no direct correlation between public transit use and COVID-19 spread, including in New York City. As long as people wear masks, and trains and buses are well-ventilated, the authors concluded public transit is relatively safe.