Is There Asbestos on the London Underground?

Whenever there is talk of asbestos in London the London underground is always mentioned. Why is this?

In this article we will look at the history of the London underground and why it has become so closely associated with asbestos.

Is There Asbestos on the London Underground

When and why was asbestos used in the London underground?

The Metropolitan Railway was the world first underground railway. This was constructed and opened in London around 1863. Various other underground railways followed throughout central London over the next 50 years. London’s Circle Line, Waterloo & City Railway, Central London Railway, Baker Street & Waterloo Railway, Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway to name but a few.

Asbestos although used in construction as early as 1900 was not widely used and was not the first choice in construction products. Asbestos really took off in the construction world in the UK at the end of the second world war. The highest usage of asbestos in the UK was during the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970s. There was a slow decline in the 80s with its eventual prohibition just before the start of 2000. And it was a very slow decline. Millions of tonnes of asbestos building and construction products were used throughout construction and refurbishment all over the UK including London up until its eventual ban.

During WW2 the London underground was severely damaged and in dire need of refurbishment and repair. This would take decades to carry out and complete. Tie this in with the high usage of asbestos during this time period 1950 to 1970 and beyond.

It’s easy to see how huge amounts of asbestos products could and would have been used during these extensive refurbishments and repairs throughout the London underground.

Asbestos was after all relatively cheap and at the time considered to be a “miracle” material. Even during the decline in the 1980’s and 1990’s the potential fire and electrical hazards of the London underground made asbestos a go to product.

Where would asbestos have been used in the London underground?

With over 5000 asbestos products in circulation at its most used the question really should be where would it not have been used?

Overall construction: Lets look at this first. Mile upon mile of tunnels throughout London with live electrical installations and potential fire risk. Tunnels would have been lined with asbestos products throughout. Then there is the underground stations. Everything from ceilings to walls and floors. Asbestos would have been used in every conceivable location.

The Trains: It is well documented that asbestos was used in the construction of the tube trains themselves. Asbestos products were used in the mechanical elements such as brakes and electrics. In addition, early tube trains were lined within the compartments to the walls, ceilings, and floors.

How much asbestos is left in the London underground?

It is well documented that the London underground even today contains large amounts of asbestos. However, since the early 1990’s there has been ongoing initiatives to remove asbestos from the London underground. This has primarily been during planned refurbishment projects. It has also been documented that there are still some tube trains still in service which contain asbestos.

The challenge with asbestos and the London underground is that asbestos removal requires closures of the tube. This presents challenges and problems. Therefore, any asbestos removal initiatives take many years to complete.

Today asbestos is still prevalent in the London underground, however it is public record that these remaining asbestos products are being managed to control the risks as far as is reasonably practicable.

Asbestos in the London underground. What are the risks?

The risk to staff and the public from asbestos within the London underground will be dependent upon how well it is being managed. If the asbestos remaining within the network is in a good and sealed condition and remains that way, then the risks are low. However as with any asbestos containing structure there is still risk.

The big problem with the London underground is the sheer volume of air movement. Every time a tube train passes through a tunnel the air movement is significant. The biggest risk from asbestos is when it becomes airborne. Any loose asbestos fibre within the London underground through current asbestos locations, previous damage or other reasons will become readily airborne every day.

It has been said that asbestos background levels in the London underground on any given day exceed the asbestos control limit as laid out be the Health and Safety Executive. This control limit although not a level that is deemed safe is a level that the HSE say should not be exceeded to reduce the risk of asbestos exposure. This exceeding the asbestos control limit within the London underground comment may well be just hearsay.

As I write this article, I have not seen any evidence of this. However, having been in the asbestos industry for nearly 30 years I have heard this comment many times by asbestos professionals and experts. Is it hearsay or is there some truth behind the comment? Given the air movement and the amount of asbestos products over the history of the London underground it’s hard to say without seeing asbestos air testing analysis.

What is the future of asbestos in the London Underground?

As mentioned previously removing all asbestos from the London underground is a very difficult process. It is likely that it will be an ongoing process during the tubes upgrading, refurbishment and maintenance projects. Either way it will take many years or even many decades to remove all asbestos products. Like many building in London it may never all be removed as it may not be practicable or even possible.

So yes, there may be a risk of asbestos exposure in the London underground. However, it’s my opinion that this risk has reduced significantly since the 1980’s and continues to be reduced year after year. The risk from asbestos in the London underground is similar to that of any building in London which contains asbestos products. And there are many thousands. It will come down to how well the duty holders are complying with the law and how well they are managing the risk.