When the first new 200-metre long trains built for the Crossrail / Elizabeth Line begin running in May, each of the nine carriages will be equipped with WiFi, 4G connection and air-conditioned climate control. The first section covering Paddington, Liverpool Street and Heathrow Terminal 4 will actually open in December 2018 – exactly 70 years after the first diesel electric locomot- ive rolled out of British Railway’s Derby Works installed with asbestos linings. 

Tragically, the use of asbestos insulation in the building of locomotives and railway carriages throughout the last century continues to claim the lives of train builders, diagnosed with mesothelioma disease up to 50 years later. In one recent case, a father-of-three who was employed at the Derby works during the 1950s and 60s may only have between 6 – 18 months left to live following a diagnosis of asbestosis caused by years of regular exposure to the deadly fibre insulation. 

Not issued with a mask or any other form of safety protection 

As is so often reported, a lack of asbestos awareness to the deadly health dangers meant that the victim was not issued with a mask or any other form of safety protection against dust contamination nor given information about the potential risks. The previous death of a former British Rail coach builder, aged 92, also from Derbyshire worked with asbestos insulation for most of his working life repairing railway carriages was said to be constantly surrounded by “a cloud of asbestos”. 

Asbestos was used in almost every aspect of rail coach production by the mid 1950s. A most toxic type – blue ‘crocidolite’ asbestos – was already being installed to prevent the wooden floors used in carriages at the time from overheating and catching fire. While the sprayed asbestos coating in the passenger coaches is concealed and protected by the interior trim, in many drivers’ cabs and guards’ compartments it was merely painted over. This type of finish is prone to damage by scuffing, and general wear and tear causing the asbestos to become exposed with the risk of fibres becoming airborne. 

Asbestos between the inner and outer layers of the carriage body 

The former coach builder, aged 75, was apprenticed in his mid teens at British Rail before going on to work at the Derby works in the late 1950s. The locomotive depot is now known as an asbestos ‘hotspot’ along with a number of coach yards, such as Manchester, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Bristol and Wolverton, At these sites, asbestos cement was known to be sprayed at high pressure between the inner and outer layers of the carriage body frameworks to insulate the walls, ceilings and floors of the carriages and buffet cars. 

The Derby works opened around 1840 behind Derby station, and following nationalisation of the railways in 1947, became part of BR Workshops. In 1948, when the first British main-line diesel electric locomotive began to be produced, the works employed over 5,000 people and the asbestosis victim was involved in building the new prototype diesel cabs. 

More than a thousand diesel locos were built at Derby before production ceased in 1966, however, the victim only began to experience breathing difficulties in his 70s, more than forty years after the original period of exposure. The terminally ill railcoach worker, who is now permanently bedridden was awarded an out-of court settlement on his mesothelioma claim, which will help to provide financial security to his remaining family. 

Programme of removing asbestos from 6,000 carriages 

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. 

By the 1970s, came news that former carriage asbestos sprayers at the York depot were being diagnosed with mesothelioma. In 1974, it was reported that British Rail was to begin a programme of removing asbestos from 6,000 of its carriages – around 40 per cent of its total stock – and from 800 locomotives at key depots including Derby, Doncaster, York, Glasgow, Wolverton, Eastleigh, Crewe and Swindon. 

The site of the former Derby railway depot is now renamed as “Pride Park”, part of which is now home to Derby County Football Club’s Pride Park Stadium.