During the 20 years that I’ve worked within the train cleaning business, one of the growing trends is concern for the environment. You can barely turn on the news or read a paper these days without some mention of it creeping in, whether it be referring to the melting glaciers, lack of recycling, or Britain’s ‘extreme’ weather conditions.

Trains themselves are heralded as a greener alternative to cars and, combined with the Congestion Charge, they are a great means for reducing pollution in the capital. However, as our train services become increasingly busy, they become increasingly dirty. On average we have about seven minutes to blitz a train head to toe – less if, for some reason, the train is parked half a kilometre down the platform and we have to bring the equipment to the train.

Of course it’s not an in-depth clean. As great as it would be to do a deep clean of the train in preparation for each batch of commuters, it’s an impossible dream. Instead, the berth cleaning is carried out late at night at different depots in the south.

Something that has always shocked me – even more so now – is the sheer amount of rubbish we find left on the trains. Every year, we dispose of close to half a million bags of rubbish, most of which is sent to landfill sites. Even more shocking is that probably 95 per cent of the rubbish we collect from trains is recyclable.

Most of the waste is made up of the free papers distributed during rush hour – namely the Metro and City AM in the morning and the Evening Standard in the evening. More than a million of these papers are handed out every day.

Commuters tend to pick up the papers, read them over the course of their journey and, more often than not, discard them on the train, which means they are not recycled. Although some efforts are being made to make recycling facilities available in stations, there is still much more that could be done. If there’s one thing our rail facilities lack, it’s recycling points.

Some councils have established special bins outside stations, but they’re not always available at larger stations due to potential security risks. In addition, if someone is commuting on multiple train lines, the likelihood is they will discard the paper on the train in the course of their journey.

To exacerbate the problem, the papers rarely include explicit statements encouraging people to recycle – though they will be the first to report environmental issues. Metro, for example, has a small sentence on the contents page telling people to take their paper with them and recycle it once they’ve finished reading it. There’s no knowing how many people this has impacted, but I doubt such a small reference is really effective.

In the future, I would like to see increased recycling facilities on the train. At Advance we have many ideas about how more recycling could be achieved, but the biggest challenge remains in convincing both those in charge, and the passengers, that something needs to happen. Train operators need to work harder at promoting recycling on their trains, and at establishing the means to do this. The public must feel obliged to recycle, prompted by the media and, in particular, the free papers. If we all pull together for a united cause, we could make a noticeable difference.

Our world is constantly changing and new ideas, theories and statistics about climate change frequently emerge. Trains promote green transport, but we need to expand this green notion more prominently throughout the entire train infrastructure. We don’t want people to just get out of their cars and get on public transport and think they’ve done their duty. We need to see a green policy that extends into the travelling experience. It’s possible and manageable, and it could potentially be very beneficial to our future.


Jim King is a director of Advance Cleaning, which cleans 1,000 trains a day at London Victoria, London Bridge and Charing Cross.