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Southern Railway on the ‘Clean’ track

All trains to have green toilets by the end of next Five Year Plan,” was one of the major promises included in the Indian Railways Budget this year. What began as the Year of Cleanliness in 2007 has resulted in the Railways making concerted efforts in understanding the need for cleaning equipment, chemicals and their applications. The Indian Railways, divided into multiple zones, has made extensive plans for expansion, modernisation and cleanliness.

Under this development plan, priority has been given to enhancement of rail capacity, modernisation, traffic facility works and expansion and development of the network, thereby increasing cleaning areas.

Each zone has invited tenders for mechanised cleaning solutions and maintenance in keeping with the modernisation plans. Broadly, the cleaning boroughs include concourse, platforms, tracks, circulating area, dormitory, waiting rooms, toilets attached to the waiting rooms and in the stations, coaches, yards and approach roads.

Clean India Journal took the initiate to understand the cleaning solutions adopted by the Southern Railway and the challenges faced in achieving the results.

Cleaning is being handled by three departments – the traffic department for smaller stations, the medical department for bigger stations and the mechanical department for coach cleaning. The traffic and medical departments outsource cleaning of selected areas.

In case of smaller stations, the requirement for cleaning is limited, as the standing/waiting period of people at the station is lesser compared to bigger stations like Chennai Central, where people, due to longer transit time, tend to reach much earlier. Hence, these stations need to be equipped with more facilities. In the Southern Railway, almost all stations are under cleaning contractors except a few like Arakonam where inhouse staff does the cleaning. The immediate challenges and issues before the SR have been broadly divided into the following:


Night soiling at major stations has remained a problem area with the Railways. Toilets that used to remain shut when trains are on halt have been opened up due to popular demand. Resultantly, toilets are used even by non-passengers.

“Track cleaning is best done with high pressure water jets. But people discourage contractors from using jets as the water splashes and spills all over the place,” said a railway official. “With incessant human traffic using the platforms all the time, when does one clean? May be an alternate solution with vacuuming facility could help in cleaning the tracks.” Ironically, the SR is using hose pipes to wash away the soil. Water consumption increases with these kinds of cleaning methods.

Cleaning with hose does not help, as the tracks are not on even surface. At many stations, the surface is not concrete. Further, there are sleepers on top of the surface over which tracks are laid. This makes cleaning night soil difficult. Even where tracks are laid on concrete surfaces, the machines are unable to achieve 100% cleaning. In some stations, there are also ballast tracks which are all the more hard to clean.

Protection gear

The contractors have been provided with hand gloves, boots and other safety gears. But how comfortable are these gloves and face masks? Workers generally avoid wearing these safety gears as it adds to their discomfort.

Station floors

In addition to periodic manual cleaning, scrubber driers are being used in most of the major stations of the SR. With increasing eateries at stations, stall owners without proper garbage bins are being fined. “Nevertheless, more bins are needed,” said the railway official.

“On an average, one can hold on to a waste paper or a wrapper for around 10 seconds. If a waste bin is not in the vicinity in those 10 seconds, one tends to drop the waste paper down. At railway stations, the urge to drop it on the empty tracks is much more than on the platform. Not just attractive bins but also cleaner-friendly bins are essential.”


This is one area, where the Railways seems to falter continuously and draw dissatisfaction from passengers. Linen is managed by the traffic department or IRCTC which then outsource the job to contractors. “Linen, provided to five AC coaches on every train, include two bed sheets, pillow cover, hand towel and woollen blanket per passenger, besides curtains and other linen used in the AC first and two tier classes. There are 24 berths in first class, 68 x 2 berths in AC two tier and 41 x 2 berths in AC three tier. In all two bundles of 242 sets of linen need to be washed and ironed at the end of one journey.”


The Railways has drawn public ire for pest management too. The pantry cars and coaches where food is left behind face cockroach infestation. There are pest control measures in place, but, the authorities are looking for better technology to combat this problem. Apart from the coaches, even in the waiting rooms at major stations and on the tracks, rodent burrows are a common sight.


The Indian Railways is working towards making cleaning as an onboard service with heavy cleaning being done at terminals. The whole idea is to restrict shorter halts for passenger movements only rather than for cleaning and loading food. The IR is experimenting with a new concept of letting out the exterior of the coaches for advertising to outside agencies. The advertisements not only add to the revenue of the Railways but the agencies advertising on a particular coach also undertake cleaning of coaches. The experiment has so far been successful, with agencies sending their cleaning staff on board long journey trains. These workers clean the coaches and toilets and replace paper towels & soaps. The bathroom floors are cleaned at en route stations.

Roofs & Ceilings

Cleaning the high ceiling at Chennai Central with hanging cobwebs and smeared diesel exhaust, has been difficult due to improper access route.

Apart from the problems above, some of the challenges faced by the Railways include the need for further mechanisation of cleaning activity, minimising use of water in cleaning dirty coaches during monsoon, effective cleaning of end panels and under gear, especially the air hoses, couplings, springs, break gear and cleaning of toilets that become dirty within an hour of cleaning, especially during morning and evening hours.

Coach Cleaning

Every major depot gets a certain number of coaches for primary maintenance. At the Basin Bridge depot, 92,000 coaches are maintained. Certain activities are outsourced to contractors.

A2Z Maintenance and Engineering Services Pvt. Ltd, one of the contractors engaged in coach cleaning at the Basin Bridge, showed CIJ how the coaches get a complete wash and scrub before being wiped dry and sealed to undertake the next journey.

Coach cleaning is labour intensive, which includes activities like dusting, sweeping, degreasing, scrubbing, mechanised floor cleaning… said Kalaiselvam, Operations Manager-A2Z Maintenance. All major South-bound trains park at the Basin Bridge depot where they go through thorough cleaning. Trains leaving Chennai Central return to Basin Bridge after three to five days covered in layers of mud, grime stuck in the hems of the windows and excreta splashed on the sides. While the coaches within are strewn with garbage and left over food, tea stains and muddy footprints spread all over the floor and toilets stinking too.

As Kalaiselvam escorted us on the long stretch of the platform where several men and women were engaged in washing the exteriors of the train, he explained, “Cleaning inside the coach involves cleaning of floors, side wall panels, seat/berth and under the seat and toilets. We begin with dusting and sweeping of dry dust and garbage and follow it with thorough washing and cleaning using Roots Wizzard floor cleaning machine. Then, we do a vacuum and give the final touch up.” Though the steps are few, the cleaning is intrinsic.

Five women were at work on the Tamil Nadu Express, three were scrubbing the floor with water and Cleanex solution from Professional Care, while two were cleaning the seats and panel boards with degreaser from Eureka Forbes. Two others were cleaning the toilets with Eureka Forbes bowl cleaner. “We do not use acids, but at times, to remove stubborn yellow stains in toilets we have to use acid.” As work took a definite rhythm inside the coaches, with some women working under the comfort of the safety gears, men worked on the outside of the coaches scrubbing the exterior with scrubbing pad from the Saint Gobain glass factory and chemicals like Climax from Professional Care and Supermax, Mumbai.

Apart from scrubbers, specially made coir brushes are used for scrubbing the exterior. These come from Manali and one brush lasts for a week. “Nylon brushes are not effective and have a lot of gaps between bristles.” But when it comes to removing tough dirt/stains, be it on the exteriors of the train or in toilets, Roots high pressure jets are put to use. Apart from common coaches, the AC coaches are also subjected to the same cleaning processes. “But we also spray air freshener – jasmine spray from Professional Care – in all the eight coaches. However, pest control is handled by a separate department.”

One area in the train that requires massive cleaning, is the pantry car. As we visited the pantry car or the GT train, it was a sight similar to an aftermath of a storm. Garbage of wrappers, paper plates, disposables, food… was strewn all over the kitchen area; the side wall panels had layers of slime and oil stains, the exhaust was filled with grease… Workers used pen knives to remove oil stains that refused to give way in spite of a jet bath!

Around 27 people clean the entire train of 23 to 24 coaches in five to six hours and a minimum of seven people are required for dusting and cleaning of a single coach. At a given point of time, the Basin Bridge depot has 20 trains stationed for cleaning. A2Z handles three trains – Grand Trunk, Tamil Nadu Express and Trivandrum Mail – and cleans 101 coaches per day. Trains like Brindavan Express are cleaned during the night shift.

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