Unite, the UK and Ireland’s largest union, has warned the broken promise to end the practice of train toilets dropping sewage on tracks by the end of the year , is putting the health of rail maintenance staff in danger and unless immediate action is taken the union will ballot for industrial action.

The longest delays to end the disgusting practice appear to be on East Midlands Railways which is operated by Abellio and which will continue to dump sewage on tracks until 2023.

Train sewage

When the sewage is flushed from the trains it also becomes stuck on the undercarriage of trains and unless there are specialised washing facilities, maintenance workers have to clean the sewage off before repair work and inspections can be undertaken.

This is a particular issue at the Neville Hill maintenance depot in Leeds where workers maintain trains from both East Midlands Railways and London North Eastern Railways (LNER). Both companies operate trains which allow sewage to drop onto tracks and their trains.

In order to undertake this work, the workers are forced to clean the faecal material from the train before inspecting and repairing the train.

Workers at risk

Unite national health and safety advisor Rob Miguel said: “Although Neville Hill is not the only depot whose workers are affected by the problem, it is the one that is subject to a report commissioned by the Office of the Rail and Road (ORR) and undertaken by the Science Division of the Health and Safety Executive.”

 The survey found: The highest levels of airborne coliforms, measured in two samples, were an order of magnitude greater than found in sewage treatment plants. This suggests a potential for significant exposure to these bacteria, exacerbated by the enclosed space in which the workers were generating dust.”

Specialised washing facilities needed

The HSE report recommended that specialised washing facilities were introduced to ensure that workers’ health is no longer placed at risk.

The risk is far more than theoretical. Around seven years ago there was a cellulitis epidemic at Neville Hill affecting six people, two of whom nearly died. It was a particularly dangerous strain emanating from untreated sewage. There have been further less serious outbreaks of cellulitis more recently.

Unite has now said that unless the specialist washing facilities are introduced immediately then it will ballot its 130 members at Neville Hill for industrial action.

Disgusting condiitons

Unite national officer for rail Harish Patel said: “Our members are being forced to work in disgusting conditions, which is directly endangering their health.

“The underside of trains are dirtier than sewage plants.

“The only way to protect workers’ health is to have the trains cleaned in a separate purpose built facility. This is being undertaken in many depots, where this is not happening we are advising our members the health risk is unacceptable.

“Unless immediate action is taken to introduce specialised washing facilities, Unite will begin the process of balloting its members for industrial action.

“Delays and excuses are simply not acceptable.”

Slow progress

Mr Miguel added: “Unite is currently engaged with the company and the ORR around this matter. Given the severe health risks that our members are exposed to here, and the slow progress in moving to pre-cleaning of undercarriages prior to maintenance work, our expectation is that the regulator now needs to look at enforcement action.”


Notes to editors:

For more information please contact Unite senior communications officer Barckley Sumner on 020 3371 2067 or 07802 329235. Email: [email protected]

  • Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.