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The muck spreader

I had to look again at the calendar to be sure. Yes, it is 2006. So how can the story I heard in the pub recently really be true?

A couple of beers with some of my old mates is always a good night out. Sit and chat about the good old days and catch up with the latest news. But having worked on-track for almost 50 years, I found the following story hard to believe.

For many months P-Way and S&T staff had been complaining about an orange mist being discharged from some GNER trains on the East Coast Main Line. This was accompanied by an unpleasant smell.

Different reasons had been given to fob them off - the finger was pointed at the kitchen car and brake pads. But nothing was being done to improve matters. In fact, as more 225 sets were upgraded to Mallard standard, the problem was, if anything, getting worse.

Finally, late last year, a trackside meeting was held near Ferryhill in County Durham with representatives from interested parties. The outcome seems to have been an acceptance that the discharge was actually from the tanks used to store lavatory waste. With full tanks, the waste was overflowing when the trains were at speed, banking or when the brakes were being applied.

Several weeks passed during which time health and safety reps tried to get a copy of the meeting report. They were keen to progress the case and advise the lads and union of the problem, together with any potential dangers. But they were having no luck.

Work has clearly been going on in the background as the lads have now been sent a letter from Network Rail informing them of the problem and the steps that GNER are taking to sort things out. These should be completed by October when GNER hopes to start emptying the tanks on a daily basis. Currently they're drained every two or three days.

A risk assessment has been issued to staff in the North East informing them that coming into contact with the spray from these trains can leave a bad taste in the mouth for up to 90 minutes. The long term consequences are unknown and trackworkers have been advised to "turn so their backs face the nearest running rail". This is contrary to the instruction given on page 30 of Personal Track Safety Handbook - this tells you to "keep watching the train until it has passed".

The problem appears to be localised to the North East but, surely, if it can happen in County Durham it can happen anywhere between Kings Cross and Glasgow or Leeds? And what about the poor unsuspecting passenger waiting for a local service as a high speed train thunders through their station? Have they been advised to turn their backs?
What about the poor unsuspecting passenger waiting for a local service as a high speed train thunders through their station?

People living with gardens backing onto the ECML will of course turn onto their front if sunbathing this summer. This orange spray will do wonders for their tan!

Going back in time, I well remember poor sanitation being the norm, with toilet discharge going direct from train to track. The odd 'guards parcel' was sometimes thrown in for good measure. But, after the millions that have been spent on modernising the railways, it’s hard to believe that trackside workers have to endure this kind of Victorian sanitation in these days of the Channel tunnel, the TVG and bullet train.

Once again the trackworker is been treated very poorly indeed. What kind of contamination is getting onto hands, face and clothing? And, with washing facilities not all that they could be, what are the lads taking home to their kids?

It’s really hard to believe with all the hype around the railways - the new paint and pretty stations - that on-track workers are being treated in this way in 2006. But as one old wag said "the cess will never get cleared now the rhubarb is growing six feet high!"

It strikes me that the unions, Network Rail, GNER and HMRI should get together and sort this out as a matter of urgency. I don’t think the lads are prepared to be treated like this. And nor should they. Action - not distant promises - is required now. It may be a long, hot summer. October is along way away.

Story added 1st April 2006

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