The Indian Railways is arguably India’s largest facility owner and manager. The housekeeping, waste management and linen care choices it makes affect more facility users than in any other industry.
The Railways was among the first public sector entities to outsource certain services to external vendors; this gradual movement towards the service model is now a juggernaut that traverses even more service verticals, especially those that influence passenger experience.
From on-demand coach cleaning to managing waste at railway stations, removing stains from passenger linen to collecting trash discarded around tracks, Shailendra Singh, Executive Director, Mechanical Engineering (EnHM & Projects), Railway Board, directly and indirectly manages internal and external teams consisting of thousands of personnel who make rail travel clean, safe and pleasant.
At a special session with industry leaders at the Clean India Technology Week, he listed and explained the environmental and linen care challenges the Railways faces, and issued an open call to potential partners who can help overcome these issues.
Rolling stock and facility housekeeping
Coach floor cleaning
While we want to use only machines for cleaning coaches, we have found that scrubbing machines currently in use do not reach all areas of the floor, especially the parts under the seats. These areas end up having to be manually cleaned, or the cleaning remains unsatisfactory.
Coach toilet cleaning
When we analysed all the cleaning-related complaints we received from passengers, we found that around 40% of the complaints were related to unclean toilets, which were either not being cleaned frequently enough, or at all. We also need to improve toilet design to improve their cleanability. We need solutions that will help not only with cleaning, but with ensuring that each toilet remains clean, and is perceived as such, for a longer period of time.
Choking of drain pipes
Another set of complaints comes from the choking of toilets and wash basins. We have upgraded all coach toilets to bio-toilets; soon, we will make all of these vacuum toilets as well. People sometimes throw different types of garbage in them – like paan and gutka packets – which chokes them. We are trying to provide on-board housekeeping staff with equipment and training to unchoke clogged drain pipes, but the first person to use the toilet after it gets choked will still have an unpleasant experience and will lodge a complaint. We need a more sustainable solution.
We have ragpicking contracts for this, where the track is periodically cleaned by staff during intervals when trains aren’t running. We also have huge, rail-mounted vacuum cleaners which run on the tracks and pick up garbage from it.
But if you see the entry to any big city, the dirtiest part is the area adjacent to the tracks, not the track itself. These areas are filled with plastic cups and polythene packets, which cannot be cleaned by the track cleaning machine and are not part of the track cleaning contract.
We are opting for green certification and accreditation of our trains, stations, workshops and production units from various certifying agencies like IGBC and CII. All our facilities need to be green; our mission is to become net-zero by 2030. Currently, we are trying to make all our workshops net-zero from the energy point of view. We don’t just want to minimise used water discharge; we want to eliminate it by recycling and reusing 100% wastewater.
We have to use a very large amount of water for coach cleaning; in fact, we use roughly around 1,600 litres of water for washing one coach. In major cities like Kolkata or Delhi, we wash thousands of coaches every day; just imagine the amount of water being used, and how much of it literally goes down the drain.
We have set up Effluent Treatment Plants at some stations to reuse waste water, and are in the process of setting up more. However, what we really need to do is curtail the amount of water required for cleaning in the first place.
We need ways to empty and clean dustbins, both on-board coaches and at stations. This garbage then needs to be disposed of appropriately, either on-site or at another location for scientific processing.
Unfortunately, we have found that the manpower deputed by the housekeeping agencies to which we have outsourced cleaning is not trained to do the job properly; their skillset is really poor, and this affects the cleaning results achieved.
We have no mechanism to ensure that the on-board housekeeping staff that is assigned to a train, remains on-board for the entire journey. There have been many cases where they board from the originating station and get off at the very next station; the train completes the rest of the journey without the onboard staff being present; you can imagine the effect this will have on passenger experience.
We need technological solutions to ensure that the housekeeping staff is not just present on board throughout the journey, but also doing their job and not sitting idle.
Implementing labour laws
Earlier, we had been opting for manpower-dependent products and manpower-based contracts; now, we have decided to go for outcome-based contracts where we do not specify the manpower that needs to be deputed. Implementing the provisions of the latest labour laws is a huge challenge for us.
The Indian Railways typically spends around ₹2,700 crores on cleaning every year. This figure had dipped to ₹2,000 crore during the pandemic, but is expected to rise again to ₹3,000 crore this year. We are looking for ways to reduce our costs without compromising on the quality of cleaning.
Passenger linen management
We need around 4.5 lakh sets of passenger linen every single day; this translates to around 435 tonnes of linen that needs to be laundered daily. Due to the non-availability of linen, we are not fully operational yet, and currently need about 259 tonnes per day.
This linen is processed through two types of laundries. BOOT laundries are public-private partnerships where we provide land, power and water, while private partners make capital investments and operate the laundry for which they are paid on a per-piece basis. We offer them an assured offtake of 70%, even when the linen load is less than this. 22 such BOOT laundries have been installed, although some of them are being recommissioned after a long pandemic break.
The other type of laundry is the departmental laundry, in which CAPEX investment is made by the Railways. They are operated either by an outsourced vendor, or by the Railways itself. There are 51 such laundries.
We have invested around ₹400 crores across both types of laundries; 56 railway laundries are currently back in operation.
We are looking for more energy-efficient machines, environment-friendly chemicals which also improve the lifespan of linen, and better laundries. We need support from industry experts to run pilot projects that we can then make part of our policy.
We are going in for tunnel washers, which need less water compared to washer-extractors. We are also condensing steam from the outlet for use as hot water in the boiler.
Because of the scale of operations, this is a huge challenge for us. Linen items have to be counted before it is offloaded from the train and handed over to the laundry operator, as well as after processing and before being loaded back onto a train. Doing this manually requires a massive number of people.
We are looking for solutions like RFID tagging of linen to eliminate manual counting and save on costs. This will also help us keep better track of the laundering process.
Lifespan of linen
Currently, the lifespan of linen is 90 washes or 1 year for handloom products, 1.5 years for polyester products and 9 months or so for hand towels and pillow covers. We are looking for solutions that will enable us to prolong the life of linen.
It goes without saying that washing now includes sanitisation that will kill the coronavirus during the process. This is a challenge for which we need technological inputs.
Many passengers carry food from their homes; we also serve food in our trains. Hence, our linen gets soiled by oil stains, which are difficult to remove, causing linen to be rejected or condemned. Stain removal is a huge challenge for us.
This is a sore point for us. Right now, we are doing it once every 15 days. Blankets are made of wool and should be dry cleaned, but we are wet-washing them, because dry cleaning is very expensive and too slow. We need entirely different solutions for washing blankets.
Linen may have to be condemned prematurely; some items like hand towels may be taken away by passengers. Linen loss is very high. We need linen that satisfies passenger requirements. We can even consider options that passengers can take home with them, provided they are low-cost.
At present, we check the quality of the linen, whether it is wet and if it has a smell. We are trying to check whiteness with a whiteness tester. We are open to suggestions when it comes to auditing the entire passenger linen supply chain.
In Delhi, for example, our linen requirement is 45 tonnes per day. There is no single laundry that can handle such a large amount by itself. We have to work with multiple smaller laundries, which is not cost-effective. With a larger plant, the cost of operation is less.