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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 July, 2003, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Staff anger over toilet waste
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online

A railway maintenance worker in Nottingham tells BBC News Online why staff are becoming increasingly concerned about toilet waste on tracks.

The man, who wished to remain anonymous, claimed parts of the track had not been worked on for weeks because of the thick coating of oil and effluence.

Train toilet
Check the train is moving before flushing
He said staff, armed with detergent, picks and shovels, were unable to shift the waste and feared for their health.

The man's employer, Serco, has denied work is being neglected, but admitted there were some health concerns.

Talks have taken place with Network Rail and the two train companies, Central and Midlands Mainline, to resolve the problem in Nottingham.

And the weekly inspection of the track has been slightly altered to avoid the heavy waste.

The worker, who has more than 20 years of experience on the railways, said platforms may have to close within a month, because vital repairs are not being done.

The oil has created a layer and seal, so the effluence lands on it and sticks, like concrete
Track worker
He said it's been getting increasingly worse since 1998 because of the number of trains - now 27 - staying overnight at the station, when blocked toilets are emptied.

"In some places, every yard we walk, there's big pieces of it, excrement and sanitary towels," he said.

"Workers are refusing to go in to do the work, in parts.

"We face it every day, not just at stations, but when we are trackside and a train passes by when the toilet is being flushed."

'Fatal disease'

He said a risk assessment by staff concluded there were a number of diseases they could be exposed to, including typhus, leptospirosis and toxoplasmosis.

Some workers have undertaken inoculations as a precaution, sometimes under pressure from their partners.

"An industrial dispute is possible, but this is not the unions being militant and not wanting to work.

"It is about being exposed to a possibly fatal disease."

Notice in train toilet
Passengers ignore the warnings
He blames the train operating companies, Midland Mainline and Central Trains, for not controlling the discharge.

"It is totally unacceptable in this day and age to put up with that exposure, when the technology is available to install retention tanks."

Serco and the Rail Inspectorate both acknowledged there was a build up of waste at Nottingham, but denied maintenance work had been reduced as a result.

David Godley, Serco contract director, said specialist teams were being used to remove the excrement in order for basic repairs to be done.

He said there were some concerns about health risks, but not serious ones.

I'm concerned but it's not a serious concern and I'm happy we're managing it
David Godley
"The problem is that the waste creates a high level of heavy metal in the track and noxious substances," he said.

Special baths have been introduced in Nottingham to clean the boots of workers after walking on the track.

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which sets railway inspection guidelines, said the problem was addressed at a meeting on 9 July.

"There are a number of options for cleaning the waste and they're working out different solutions at the moment."

Blocked toilets

She said the track walk - the standard inspection performed once a week - had "new arrangements" to do it from a "slight distance" in parts.

The HSE also said there was no evidence of staff being exposed to any health risk.

At talks last month, the train firms were asked to tell passengers not to use the toilets at stations, and even consider locking them up.

Cleaners were being encouraged not to unblock the toilets at the station.

A spokeswoman for Central Trains, which owns Nottingham station, said a major clean of the track had been authorised and notices to passengers were being introduced.

Midlands Mainline said the company would work closely with Network Rail to resolve the problem.

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