When I was campaigning to be the Labour candidate for London mayor a couple of years ago, one issue kept being raised at meetings where I was speaking. That was pollution and, in particular, clean air. It is an issue that is leaping up the political agenda as more and more people are concerned about it. I was particularly critical of the air quality in Oxford Street, Britain’s premier shopping street, and it is welcome that Sadiq Khan, the mayor, is addressing that by planning to close the street and implement a series of other measures across the capital.
The railways seem to be the good guys in this respect as road traffic is seen as the main culprit. But perhaps they have got off lightly. The railways can lay claim to being the best means of travelling for those concerned with the environment and it is something often mentioned by the industry and its supporters. By and large that is true. Of course emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are far lower per kilometre travelled in a densely packed train than in a car with a single passenger. Even when Alastair Darling used to complain, when he was transport secretary, that there were too many trains shuttling round the network carrying fresh air, the overall figures for the industry were very healthy.
However, there is an aspect of the problem that has not been properly addressed in the industry and which even the unions have tended to ignore, although that may be about to change. That is the air that passengers, and particularly, staff, breathe in stations. A particular case in point is Birmingham New Street. Despite the complete renovation of the station – or rather the area above the station – the platforms remain a dingy subterranean canyon, little changed by the refurbishment. A Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 highlighted this problem as far back as February 2016 but little seems to have changed as when I passed through the other day, the air down there was as a bad when walking alongside a busy city dual carriageway. It is exacerbated by the slow pace of the trains, the tunnel at one end, and the fact that some trains stay for several minutes idling. In short, passengers, and particularly the staff working down there, are breathing air that clearly breaches environmental standards.
Network Rail promise that action will be taken. Their spokesman told me: ‘We are just finalising a
a very detailed air quality report being carried out in partnership with Birmingham University. This will be presented to the local authorities and the industry local authority at the end of the year with recommendations and actions as a result.’ He noted that idling diesel trains are an issue and that consequently ‘we will need the cooperation of train operators and support from the Department for to improve air quality at platform level’.
However, this is an issue that extends way beyond Birmingham. You only have to look at the blackening of the roof at Paddington station which was renovated a few years ago to realise that the air we all breathe in stations is not doing us any good. Indeed, a five day survey in 2015 of air quality in Paddington found and found that NO2 levels were significantly higher than
in nearby streets and regularly broke EU thresholds. Data was compared with the
nearby Marylebone roadside air quality site (1.5km away) which has the reputation of
being one of the worst sites in London for air quality. The comparisons indicated that
train station air quality was more polluted than the nearby roadside.
This example came from a wider academic study and I am indebted to my friend, Chris Randall, formerly of this parish, who spotted the article, ‘Air Quality in Enclosed Railway Stations’ which was published by the University of Birmingham last year. The report by a team of authors led by John Edward Thomas warns that the fact that diesel fumes have since 2012 been recognised as carcinogenic by the World Health Organisation puts the emphasis on railway providers to act to reduce what WHO calls ‘ambient diesel fumes’. They point out that while local authorities together with Network Rail are responsible for monitoring air quality at stations, currently ‘Currently no station air quality data is made available to the public and this issue must be addressed’.
The authors suggest that current occupational health standards are not adequate in relation to this problem and need to be rewritten. That may have enormous implications for the rail industry. As an aside, the authors note that electric trains are by no means environmentally pure. While obviously they reduce emissions within stations, they produce ultrafine metal particles which can cause cancer and emphysema but the authors stress that the risks from diesel fumes are far greater.
This does not, therefore, give the government another excuse to slow down the electrification programme. Indeed, air quality is another reason why the move towards bimode rather than full electrification is so short-sighted. Of course, in most big stations, these trains will be operating in electric mode, but there will be exceptions – Swansea and numerous stations on the Midland Main Line for example – and the whole sorry saga demonstrates that clean air is still not sufficiently high up politicians’ agenda as otherwise the decision would never have been taken.
While passengers are clearly affected, any evidence of impact would be difficult to prove since they are likely to spend only a small proportion of their time in railway stations. However, the health of railway staff may well be damaged by prolonged exposure to poor air quality and this issue may well become the new asbestosis scandal. The Guardian reported last month that legal cases about toxic diesel emissions are being launched in several industries. It cited a case in which Parcelforce is being sued by an employee who was exposed to polluted air for eight hours a day in a depot which resulted in him getting asthma. Similarly, Christchurch Borough Council is facing a claim by a tractor driver who drove a vehicle for two years which had holes in the floor through which fumes would enter the cab.
This is clearly a Pandora’s Box. It is only time before a railway worker, supported by a union, takes up a similar case. If they were successful, the consequent liability for the railways could threaten to bankrupt the industry and government would have to intervene. It is time to start acting now, not just in Birmingham but across the network, even though it may already be too late.
Rail journeys behind the Iron Curtain
I was approached a year or so ago by Christopher Knowles, a potential author who had written a book about his time as a guide on the Transsiberian and Transmongolian railways during the Cold War. He wanted me to read his manuscript and help find a publisher. I get many such requests and I always try to deal with them relatively quickly as I know how important it is to people who want to publish books.
I am, though, scrupulously honest. There are far too many of the ‘we went on a trip to wherever and it was jolly exciting, and we got drunk in a small station in Slovenia’ type and I do not hesitate in telling people as gently as possible that just perhaps it should stay in their bottom drawer.
Mr Knowles’s effort was different. His manuscript had two great attributes. First, there was a real story to tell, one which was a key part of history since so much has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The other, and this is so important, he could write. His descriptions were engaging, his humour was funny (a difficult achievement that!) and his story telling was compelling. I managed to pass his name on to Pen & Sword who also spotted that Mr Knowles had a talent for writing.
So I was delighted the other day to receive a copy of The Red Line, a railway journey through the Cold War. There was, however, a sad postscript. The book was sent to me by his widow Ann Frost as Mr Knowles died of the ghastly Motor Neurone Disease earlier this year. Fortunately, she told me, he had seen the published version of his book before he died.
Incidentally, my own book on the history of Indian Railways, Railways and the Raj is coming out next month. If you want to attend the inaugural lecture in aid of the Railway Children charity in Waterloo on November 23, simply Google: EventBrite Wolmar railway children. Tickets are £15, all to go to the charity.