Cancer cluster that has affected eight workers at rail depot in Leeds could be caused by toxic diesel fumes

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A trade union has claimed that dangerous diesel fumes at a rail depot have led to the deaths of two workers.

A total of eight workers at Neville Hill in east Leeds have developed cancers in six years, with two dying from the disease.

An LNER train at Neville Hill

An LNER train at Neville Hill

Unite said three of the staff members had throat cancer, and a fourth throat and lung. One had lung cancer, another had mouth cancer, a seventh had bowel cancer and the eighth had kidney cancer.

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Four of the diagnoses have been within the last two years. Nearly all of the workers have been at Neville Hill for more than a decade and four have commenced legal proceedings.

The troubling instances of cancer at the site were revealed as a shocking video filmed in late December emerged of a train spewing a ‘toxic fog’ of diesel emissions into the depot - an occurrence staff at Neville Hill say happens regularly.

The World Health Organisation classified diesel engine exhaust emissions as a class one carcinogenic agent in 2012, putting diesel emissions in the same category as as asbestos, mustard gas and tobacco.

Diesel emissions can cause lung cancer and research has also linked them with various other types of cancer. The consequences of exposure can take years or even decades to materialise.

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Unite is raising the matter with Network Rail, which owns the depot and East Midlands Rail, which runs and employs staff, and is calling on them to take ‘decisive action’ to stop workers being exposed to diesel emissions.

The union said that dangers staff face from diesel emissions at Neville Hill are ‘the tip of the iceberg’ with countless workers across the country being exposed to the toxic fumes everyday in their workplaces.

Unite regional officer Kevin Hepworth said:

“The video captures just how this cancer-causing toxic fog fills the depot that staff are expected to work in. Unite believes that the carcinogenic diesel emissions that our members at Neville Hill have been surrounded by day-in day-out, often for years at a time, could be linked to cancer rates at the depot.

“This is literally life and death. Both Network Rail and East Midlands Rail need to protect staff by improving the depot’s ventilation system as well as the policies meant to minimise staff exposure and the amount of fumes that are emitted. The dangers of diesel emissions have been known about for years and decisive action needs to be take at Neville Hill immediately.”

Network Rail responded to the allegations by stating that they are committed to improving the ventilation system at the base.

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A spokesperson said: “We take the safety and well-being of all those who work on or around the railway incredibly seriously.

“We are committed to working with depot operators East Midlands Railway, as well as other train operators who use this facility, to improve this environment for all railway staff.

“We are working together on plans to improve the ventilation system in this facility and this work will be carried out next year.”

Neville Hill in Osmondthorpe, off the Leeds to Selby line, employs around 400 workers who carry out maintenance and locomotive cleaning. It is also used for overnight train storage.

Northern, East Midlands Trains and LNER all use the site, and East Midlands operate it. It was an East Midlands diesel High Speed Train which was filmed belching black smoke in the footage.

The issue of emissions is not the only health and safety scandal at Neville Hill that Unite have drawn public attention to.

Last November, they considered balloting for industrial action over the issue of raw sewage being dumped by trains at the site.

Staff often have to clean human waste from the underside of carriages, as the East Midlands fleet is not due to be fitted with controlled toilets, which empty waste into tanks, until the end of 2020.

The sewage must be removed before trains can be repaired or inspected. The issue is particularly acute at Neville Hill as the HSTs used by East Midlands and LNER have old toilets that drop waste directly onto the tracks, although LNER's diesel fleet has since been retired.

Unite are campaigning for a separate purpose-built facility to be provided for train cleaning - these have been installed at other depots.

Network Rail have committed to banning the old toilets from all trains using the rail system by 2023.

In the same month, two LNER trains - a brand-new Azuma and a High Speed Train - were involved in a low-speed collision on the approach lines into Neville Hill. The HST was due to be scrapped as part of LNER's fleet renewal, but the Azuma is undergoing extensive repairs.