Fancy a spot of cleaning? South Western Railway set itself a target of 100 days to deep clean every train. PAUL CLIFTON discovers what the work involves
Wallets, gum, needles… and much worse! Join the team carrying out a deep clean on South Western Railway’s Class 450s.
“You find all sorts of things stuffed down the seats. Food, credit cards, even needles and used condoms.” Daryl Warren looks up from his scrubbing, his hands in blue disposable gloves. “It’s not very nice sometimes.”
South West Trains was deep cleaning its rolling stock once every 210 days, according to replacement franchise operator South Western Railway. It says that meant the vehicles were looking grubby and shabby - the carpets were stained, with chewing gum stuck fast on the threadbare seat fabrics.
SWR promised to clean every train during its first 100 days of operation. That time ran out at the end of November, and it came close to meeting its target. Each train takes a day to deep clean - that’s 15,000 hours of elbow grease across six depots since August.
In future, SWR plans to perform a deep clean on every train every 30 days. That’s seven times more frequently than before.
At Fratton depot in Portsmouth, Warren pours limescale remover onto the yellow metal strip across the edge of the floor in the doorway of a Class 450. He works for cleaning contractor ISS.
“People just get on the train in the morning and hopefully think ‘yeah, it’s clean’. But you should see it at the end of the day: pretty messy. Used clothing? I can see how people could leave that behind when they get off. Used contraceptives? No, I can’t see how people would leave them. Not in the toilets, but on the seats. Really?”
Warren was hired specifically for this contract, so he has been working on the railway for 100 days. Does he clean his own house this thoroughly?
“No!” he laughs. “But my place wouldn’t ever get this dirty. This is public transport.”
Working in teams of four people, the deep cleaners sweep then vacuum all seat upholstery. Most of it is done on the night shift.
Using a special plastic tool, Mary Duncan digs between the pieces of cloth separating the 3+2 seating in Standard Class. Out comes old tickets, food wrappers, and stale hardened fragments of discarded lunch.
“Sweet wrappers, paper, mostly that sort of stuff,” she explains. “But other stuff too. Not often. But we get needles. And worse.”
She sweeps, vacuums and mops the train floors, using a big commercial steam cleaner that is far removed from the Dyson or Henry we use at home. Windows, doors, plastic panelling, grilles protecting lighting, ledges, luggage racks, litter bins and tables are all scrubbed. Graffiti is removed.
“Chewing gum is probably the biggest problem,” explains Warren. “We have a machine to loosen it. But if it has been stuck on cloth seats for weeks or maybe months, it doesn’t want to come off easily.”
Overseeing the teams at all SWR depots is duty manager Tracy Winterbone, from ISS.
“Some people leave their food shopping behind,” she says. “We get a few wallets, credit cards and so on. Then there is the day-to-day rubbish -newspapers, sweets, chewing gum. And then there is vomit. But we do get needles and condoms.”
Winterbone gets a very different view of passengers from the rest of us: “You just really wish people would pick up their own rubbish. It’s hard to understand how people can’t make it to the toilet, and sometimes do their business on the closed toilet seat.”
Incongruously, she grins and adds: “I love my job. I thoroughly enjoy my job.” Really? “Trains come in dirty and they go out clean. We take pride in what we do. Passengers can’t see it. They probably don’t even think about it. They take it for granted. But what would it be like without us?”
Charlie Hatcher is South Western Railway’s newly appointed Head of Cleaning and Train Presentation. He has come from National Express coaches. A few weeks into the job, he is still getting to know the depots.
“Our trains have not had a substantial deep clean for a considerable amount of time now. We are moving in the right direction. I don’t now why it was not done more often. Our customers clearly value cleanliness highly along with punctuality. That’s the feedback we’ve had. We think it’s worth investing in that.
“A deep clean starts on the ceiling and inside the light fittings, and works down to the floor. It includes areas that our customers don’t see, but which still affect the quality of their journey. Customers should be seeing a difference right away. If they don’t, then they will as we move into this regime of deep cleaning every 30 days.”
SWR knows it will be a long hard slog to change perceptions. Its first months of operation have been marred by continuing engineering disruption on the approaches to
Waterloo, as Network Rail upgrades the station to handle longer trains. There have been frequent signalling problems following the lengthening of Platforms 1-4.
On November 26, SWR says Platforms 1-16 were taken out of use by Network Rail, leaving only three platforms available. It was done with minimal notice.
The train operator has signed a contract with Siemens to refurbish its train fleet at the former Eastleigh works. That will start within a few weeks and include an interior refresh, with new seat covers to replace the fraying originals. Refurbishment of the older Class 442 Wessex Electrics will also start shortly at Eastleigh, in preparation for services on the Portsmouth line.
Stagecoach was perceived to have taken its eye off the ball in the closing months of the franchise. With the change of ownership, only a handful of key executives have actually changed. Almost all 4,500 staff are in the same roles as before. But the company hopes passengers will soon start to see an upturn in the quality of service.
Trains come in dirty and they go out clean. We take pride in what we do. Passengers can’t see it. They probably don’t even think about it. They take it for granted. But what would it be like without us?
Our customers clearly value cleanliness highly along with punctuality. That’s the feedback we’ve had. We think it’s worth investing in that.
Cleaner Daryl Warren gets to grips with the interior of a South Western Railway Class 450.