A sleek, new bullet-shaped era of luxury train travel is rapidly speeding away from an almost forgotten age of asbestos-lined carriages, which to this day, still causes rail worker deaths from mesothelioma cancer. One former rail coach builder has decided to write down his experiences as a witness testimony, which he hopes will help victims and their asbestosis lawyers with future mesothelioma claims.

Attention is currently focused upon the central section of Crossrail – renamed the Elizabeth Line between Paddington in central London and Abbey Wood in the south-east – which is due to open in December 2018. In March this year, the House of Commons gave the ‘green light’ to Phase One of the HS2 rail project – London to Lichfield – planned to open in 2026, which will extend to Leeds and Manchester by 2032/3.

When completed, more than a half a century at least would have passed since British Railways (as it was known before 1965) relaunched as British Rail with its ‘interlocking arrows’ logo. Tragically, mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis disease still continue to claim the lives of workers exposed to asbestos, which they installed into train carriages at railway depots all those years ago.

Notorious for lives lost to mesothelioma

A number of the coach yards, such as Manchester, Derby, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Bristol and Wolverton – where the deadly fibres were used to insulate the the walls, ceiling and floors of the carriages and buffet cars – were sometimes referred to as asbestos ‘hotspots’. One carriage building works, Holgate Road in York, has become notorious for lives eventually lost to the fatal incurable, mesothelioma cancer, as a result of asbestos exposure.

More than 141 deaths, including those of 59 coachbuilders have known to have died from asbestos-related mesothelioma in the York area with five or six cases confirmed every year. However, in 2012, this number had increased to around nine mesothelioma deaths in the previous 12 to 18 months. Latest figures suggest that the death toll had risen by a quarter in the last 12 months. Thirty people are reported to have died from the deadly cancer of the lung linings in York and surrounding areas of Harrogate, Scarborough, Selby and Hambleton.

A former worker at the depot, now in his 70s, is determined that his experience of “spraying and stripping of asbestos” at the coach yard will not be forgotten. He hopes that his written statement could be used to support mesothelioma victims seeking compensation in future claims.

Asbestos cement was sprayed under high pressure

In his testimony, the former carriage builder recounts that he began work at the Holgate Road works as a teenager in 1959 until 1996, when the depot closed after more than a century of rail coach production. His statement says that from 1955, asbestos cement was sprayed under high pressure between the inner and outer layers of the carriage body frameworks, including the flooring and radiators. However, ‘blue’ asbestos sheeting was already in use as insulation to prevent the wooden floors of the carriages from overheating and catching fire. Britain’s peak period of UK asbestos use was from the 1950s through to the 1970s until the first ban in the mid 1980s of the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types.

The coach builder highlights the asbestos spraying operations, which were not enclosed and the lack of an extraction system in place to control the release of dust. As was typical across much of British industry at this time, there was no personal protection equipment available, such as a face mask, for those working with asbestos. Instead, the roller shutter doors were often opened to let the build-up of dust escape to the outside air. According to his witness account, “The dust could be blown by any wind, back into and around the factory or to the four corners of York, north, south, east and west, thereby putting thousands of residents at risk”.

Even relatives of former workers could be affected by asbestos-related diseases due to “secondary exposure”. Husbands who worked with or around asbestos materials returned home from work at the York depot with the dust fibres on their overalls, work clothes, boots and hair.

Asbestos could still be found at the depot in the 1990s

The fatal consequences of asbestos exposure upon worker’s health (and their families) eventually led to more stringent national workplace controls. Under The Factories Act 1961, the Asbestos Regulations 1969 came into force May 1970, aimed at providing the first limits on levels of exposure to asbestos in the workplace.

However, by the 1970s, came news that former carriage asbestos sprayers at Holgate Road were being diagnosed with mesothelioma. It was claimed at that time that asbestos use was halted as early as 1964 although this date is disputed and asbestos contamination could still be found at the depot in the 1990s. As recently as December 2015, a former British Rail worker who died from mesothelioma aged just 66 was employed to remove asbestos insulation from old train carriages, during the late 1970s and early 80s.