The era of railway building when asbestos insulation would be used to line steam boilers or was sprayed into carriages may seem long forgotten as the debate over building HS2, a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, known as asbestos-industry blackspots, occupies today’s headlines.

During the peak period of use ( from around the 1930s to the 1970) asbestos was widely used by the formerly named ‘British Rail’ as insulation and fireproofing in the building of locomotives and passenger carriages. Also, the railway network would be used to transport manufactured asbestos products such as pipes, sheeting, pre fabricated insulation, tiles, insulation boards, etc.

As a result of growing asbestos awareness to the long term health risk, and when a ban on the most toxic blue and brown asbestos types was introduced in the UK in the 1980s, British Rail began removing the deadly insulation from train coaches and issuing protective clothing to workers. Up until this time, it was unlikely that health and safety information or protective equipment, such as special breathing masks would be made available to the workforce.

Highly likely that asbestos was used

However, the legacy of asbestos use is very much alive today for those railways workers around the country who were originally exposed and are diagnosed with the fatal, incurable mesothelioma cancer up to 50 years later. Wherever a railway building works or depot was located, such as Manchester, Swindon, Crewe, Derby, Doncaster, Wolverhampton, Bristol and York, it was highly likely that asbestos was also being used.

In York, more than 140 deaths known to have been caused by asbestosis diseases, also included nearly 60 railway coachbuilders. Between five to six mesothelioma cases continue to be confirmed in York every year.

Swindon, in particular, has been at the centre of asbestosis claims against British Rail for over thirty years in compensating victims of asbestos exposure. In 2012, research found that more than a hundred fatalities within a three year period were caused by original asbestos exposure as result of working on railway engine / carriage construction.

In one example, mesothelioma compensation was paid to a victim who had worked at British Rail since 1966. At the Swindon works, the coach builder was continuously exposed to asbestos fibre dust and in workshops where steam pipes were coated with asbestos insulation and sheets cut to shape. Tragically, the victim suffered with typical asbestosis symptoms, such as breathlessness for around thirteen years, a condition that was not fully recognised until after his passing away.

Not the only industry where asbestos fibres were to be found

Unfortunately, up until the 1970s and 80s, the railways was not the only industry where asbestos fibres were to be found in products, such as gaskets, insulating jackets, pipe lagging, linings and protective packing.

Thousands of engineering workers, for example, in factories, manufacturing plants, shipbuilding, automotive assembly lines, foundries, power stations and paper mills would be in contact with machinery where asbestos was present, such as boilers, generators, turbines and pumps, etc

According to the Health and Safety Executive, more than 2,000 cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed annually in the UK. In the age of the high speed train, the era of the asbestos built locomotive and engineering plant continues to cause suffering to thousands of former workers suffering with mesothelioma and asbestosis diseases.