Sewage on the train tracks: will the rail industry clean up after itself?

Alexander Love 30 January 2020 (Last Updated January 30th, 2020 10:12)

In 2017, the UK Department for Transport and Network Rail’s former chief executive Mark Carne pledged to work with industry to eliminate the dumping of raw sewage on to train tracks by the end of 2019. But with the exemptions that have been provided there are still trains that are likely to run without self-contained toilets until 2023. How difficult is this retrofitting job, and why is it taking so long?

Sewage on the train tracks: will the rail industry clean up after itself?
Sewage from train toilets continues to be emptied onto certain railway lines in the UK.

Sewage from train toilets continues to be emptied onto certain railway lines in the UK, despite vows by authorities to stop this practice.

A House of Commons briefing paper from 2017 estimated that around 25% of operators were still dumping toilet waste. In the same year, the then head of Network Rail – Mark Carne – and the UK Government announced a crackdown within two years.

This has not worked out as intended, with some train operating requesting temporary non-compliance (TNC) status from Network Rail while they upgrade their fleets. TNCs are only issued when the only other option is to take trains out of service for upgrades, leading to either service cancellations or running overcapacity.

This failure to completely stop toilet contents being tipped onto tracks has been condemned by rail workers’ unions.

“This is a filthy and disgusting practice that should have been outlawed decades ago, and should have no place on a modern railway. Despite repeated promises from politicians, the practice still continues,” says Mick Cash, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT).

“And it is our members, not government ministers, who are regularly sprayed with human sewage while working on the tracks. The practice should be halted and those responsible for allowing it to continue should be hanging their heads in shame.”

While newer and refurbished trains have waste storage tanks fitted, the issue of dumping urine and faeces still arises with ageing rolling stock that does not have such capabilities.

The average age of UK rolling stock for 2018-19 is 19.15 years, according to figures from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). This age has been decreasing in recent years due to the introduction of newer trains.

At present, the oldest trains are operated by MerseyRail, with an average fleet age of 39.34 years. Govia Thameslink Railway’s fleet is the newest at an average of 11.09 years.

Retrofitting waste storage tanks: is it really that difficult?

ScotRail originally stopped dumping sewage onto tracks in 2017. However, it was forced to revert to this practice again in 2018 as a temporary measure due to delays in receiving 26 renovated high-speed InterCity trains. This meant the operator had to hire much older models that do not have waste storage tanks.

Just eight of the 26 refurbished trains have been delivered to date, meaning that some of the older models will serve seven Scottish cities into next year and continue emptying toilet waste onto tracks. According to ScotRail, the refurbishment programme is now being accelerated.

“We’re working with suppliers to ensure the refurbishment of our fleet of high-speed InterCity trains is completed as soon as possible,” says a ScotRail spokesperson.

Wabtec Rail is performing the upgrades to 17 ScotRail carriages. According to Jodi Savage, Wabtec Rail contract manager for vehicles, the design of some older trains presents challenges for retrofitting.

“Assessments need to be made as to the position of the tank to make sure that there is suitable strength in the area which the tank.”

“I would say that the main challenges are that it is not just a case of bolting a tank underneath.  Sufficient space on the underframe needs to be found – often this is not directly under the toilet so pipework has to be routed from the toilet to the tank,” she explains.

“Assessments need to be made as to the position of the tank to make sure that there is suitable strength in the area which the tank is being installed. Often the toilets are gravity-fed, which uses more water per flush and would therefore require a very large tank – instead the toilet system is changed to a vacuum system, which means a smaller tank but more work in the vehicle.”

East Midlands Railway is another train operator that has requested permission to carry on flushing sewage onto tracks, which may fully not end until 2023. Dumping of effluent will continue on some fast services between St Pancras in London and other cities such as Sheffield and Nottingham.

A spokesperson for the company said that most of its trains do have controlled emissions toilets, with the majority of its regional fleet having been retrofitted with storage tanks in the past 18 months.

“We completely support the drive by Network Rail to remove all trains without controlled emissions toilets by the end of 2023 and are already working towards having all our trains fitted by the end of 2020,” the East Midlands Railway spokesperson said.

“This work is part of our £600m investment plan to completely replace our entire train fleet with either brand new or fully refurbished trains across our network.”

Richard Parsons, operations director of train cleaning system specialists Airquick, confirms that a retrofitting programme “usually takes longer to achieve than planned”.

“We have installed toilet retention tank emptying systems for retrofitted stock, only for them not to be used for up to 12 months following commissioning,” he says.

“When fitted, the retro units work no differently from those installed from new from the retention tank emptying point of view.”

With priorities aplenty can taking trains out of service be justified?

The British public have come to expect delays with railway projects. Although train companies are making efforts to end dumping sewage onto lines, it is not always viable to take trains out of service to upgrade them.

“Quite clearly it’s a hideous, outmoded way of disposing of sewage and it should have been stopped years ago,” says Bruce Williamson, spokesperson for Railfuture, an independent campaign group for better standards in UK rail services.

“Where a delay has happened in either electrification or upgrading procurement or testing or whatever for new rolling stock, then the old rolling stock still has to be used. And there’s no choice really, because obviously it’s better to run a train than to not run it at all even if it’s slightly unsatisfactory.

“The long-term solution is that the greedy train companies invest in installing the necessary tanks into their fleet.”

“But it’s a process it’s quite hard to rush really. And I suppose as well, it’s not a life and death problem. When there are other pressing issues in the rail industry there’s more pressure to fix, then I suppose this tends to come down the priorities list a bit.”

The UK Government is keen to point out the record investment in the nation’s railways, but there is a belief that these funds have not come soon enough. The RMT’s Mick Cash also places the blame with train companies, claiming that simply not enough cash has been invested.

“The long-term solution is that the greedy train companies invest in installing the necessary tanks into their fleet, rather than going for the cheapskate and more profitable option of dumping raw effluent on Britain’s railway tracks,” adds Mick Cash.

A Network Rail spokesperson said: “We are committed to putting an end to trains emptying waste onto the tracks and we are working with all operators to make this happen. There are a few train companies that have been given a bit more time for a small number of their trains and we are tracking their action plans closely to make sure they comply.”

As for the future, a fairly recent innovation for trains is bioreactor toilets. These clean wastewater using anaerobic liquid treatments. Bioreactor systems also have much larger storage capacities and can go for weeks without being emptied, as opposed to daily.

“These toilet effluent retention units treat and sterilise the liquid content and retain the solids,” adds Richard Parsons from Airquick. “The interval for emptying is increased from daily to every ten weeks or so.”