Freight threatened by asbestos find

Last updated 11:24 04/03/2014

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A union is poised to pull train workers from operating asbestos-contaminated locomotives, making it "very difficult" to move freight around New Zealand.

Forty DL locomotives KiwiRail bought from China during the last four years were removed from service on Friday, after asbestos was discovered in a sound-proofing compound.

The locomotives were quarantined for testing.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said this morning that he understood tests from four of the locomotives were back from the lab, but KiwiRail had not told the union the results.

In any case, they were airborne tests and he said the union believed tests where a cloth was run along a surface inside the locomotive then tested for asbestos, were more telling about whether asbestos was present. He understood those tests had not yet come back.

He called on KiwiRail to maintain its quarantine of the locomotives until all asbestos had been removed.

If it did not do this, the union, which covers more than 90 per cent of train workers, would tell its members not to operate the locomotives, effectively meaning they could not run.

"It's going to make life very, very difficult for rail and I really feel sorry for the customers of KiwiRail," Butson said.

KiwiRail had other locomotives, meaning some freight could still be moved without use of the Chinese machinery, he said.

While the quarantine had come at a fortunate time - when less milk was being transported, Solid Energy was moving less coal, and Tauranga's port was quiet - the sidelined locomotives could have a "significant impact" on freight if the asbestos was not cleared rapidly.

Clearing the asbestos, especially from locomotive cabs, would be a major operation.

Some services had already been cancelled, he said.

Over the past few years, workers had spotted asbestos in the locomotives but Butson said KiwiRail had reassured the union there was none.

The union would only let its members back on the locomotives if lab tests showed there was no asbestos present. But given asbestos had long been suspected, and now found, this was unlikely, Butson said.

"If they have lied to us in the past, how do we know they are not lying to us now?" he asked.

KiwiRail said it could not comment on Butson's claims before this afternoon.

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- Fairfax Media

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