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August 6, 2015updated 28 Jul 2021 3:59pm

RMT warns that night services could make the Tube dirtier

By Barbara Speed

As you may have heard, there’s a Tube strike on in London this week. The strike, among both drivers and other staff, was called by union RMT over various issues, including many related to the new Night Tube service, which is planned to launch on 12 September. 

Now, we don’t want to bore you, and we know you’re all far more interested in how much Tube drivers are paid, and how that pay packet compares to firefighters’, nurses’, and, well, your own. But some of the concerns about the Night Tube’s logistics, once you bother to listen to them, seem pretty valid. Lost amid the endless discussions of pay, for example, is the fact that managers are, according to the RMT, worried that the 72-hour run of continuous services on weekends will leave TfL unable to complete basic maintenance tasks. 

On a normal Friday and Saturday, an RMT spokesperson told the BBC, the Underground would be subject to two engineering and maintenance shifts:

These shifts are absolutely essential in terms of testing the infrastructure, cleaning the tunnels, getting rid of the dust. The only time they’re going to have to fix these problems is overnight on Sunday. They haven’t planned for any of this.

A 72-hour continuous run may not sound so long to those of us who clean our houses weekly, if that – and it’s true that platforms and stations can still be swept while passengers are present. But a process as old as the Tube itself is the rigorous cleaning of its tunnels, which build up huge amounts of dirt thanks to the suction effects of trains entering and leaving stations. 

Back in the ’40s, this build-up was tackled by teams of (usually) all-female “fluffers“, who would ride in on the last train every night and work their way along tunnels armed with a paraffin lamp, a dustpan and a brush. Now, the practice is largely the same, albeit with slightly better protective clothing: 

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 In 2012, however, TfL proposed a special tunnel cleaning trains, fitted with brushes and vacuums as shown in the cross-section below:

Image: TfL. 

Since then, the introduction of these “cleaning trains” has been delayed until at least 2017

Whether it’s human or mechanical, reducing the amount of cleaning done per week by almost a third will inevitably make the network dustier and dirtier. Debris could also build up on tracks and in tunnels (think of all those late night kebab wrappers).

This doesn’t mean the Night Tube isn’t a good idea – but it might need better planning, if we’re to be sure we won’t be riding in filth as a result of the new services, and that cleaning teams aren’t overstretched on the nights they can get access to the tunnels. 

At present, according to an RMT spokesperson, TfL managers think the planned weekend service simply “ain’t gonna work”. Let’s hope the parties involved can rejig plans so that it can. 

For more on London Underground’s overnight maintenance services, check out this photoset in Time magazine. 

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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