The Strike Diaries: a week in the life of a train cleaner

“I left work feeling unappreciated and unfulfilled.”

As the UK’s public service industries continue their industrial action for better pay and working conditions, THE FACE asked young people in each sector to keep accounts of their typical working weeks. These are the realities behind their picket-line demands.

Gemma* is a 26-year-old train cleaning supervisor, who has been working in the role for six years and is a member of the RMT union. She is an outsourced worker, like many train cleaners who work for private companies, including Atalian Servest, Churchill and Bidvest Noonan.

She has taken part in 20 days of strikes since February last year, as a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). According to an RMT survey, outside London 44 per cent of cleaners earn below £10 an hour. This figure rises to almost 70 per cent when insourced cleaners employed by Transport for Wales, Northern Trains and ScotRail are excluded.

As RMT general secretary Mick Lynch put it, Cleaners do a vital job making sure the health, safety and welfare of passengers is taken care of on a daily basis. It is almost criminal that many of them struggle to make ends meet and have dreadful conditions of work while the contractors they are employed by collect millions in profit every year.”

This week, Gemma worked five shifts, keeping trains clean in spite of messy school children, drunk partiers, marathon runners and Premier League fans.


Before preparing for each shift, I must make sure I have everything I need in my backpack, as once I leave the storeroom, which is also our break room, I am not allowed to pop back to grab anything. Therefore, in my backpack I must carry: rubbish bags, gloves, kitchen roll, toilet roll, cleaning chemicals, air freshener, a magic sponge (to remove graffiti), a biohazard box, a sharps box (to remove sharp objects such as needles or glass) and sick powder.

As an outsourced cleaner on the railway, I face daily challenges due to constant cutbacks to the contract I work on. This means staffing levels are being stripped back to the bare minimum. Today, I’m working a 12 hour shift to cover my colleague who is on annual leave. Although extra hours can be helpful, we work overtime at the same rate as usual, as the company will not allow any pay enhancements that would help them to cover absence. This makes it difficult to find cover for staff absence. A lot of the time, my colleagues and I work overtime because we don’t want to leave another staff member alone for safety reasons.


Today I was not booked to work, but came in as I did not want to leave another staff member on their own. I came across a few unpleasant things that, unfortunately, have become the norm. On one of my trains, someone was sick on the seat. I dread it when this happens, as we have little time and equipment to be able to remove the sick from the train. The best we can do is apply sick powder to contain the smell and cover the seat with a plastic bag. Later that shift, I came across a needle just outside the bigger toilet on the train, which I removed from the unit with the provided sharps kit.


No one wants to be on a late shift on Fridays as it’s the start of the weekend. Not only do we need to prepare for trains full of school children who often throw drinks and leftover lunch everywhere, but later in the evening we will have adults going on a night out, who have little care for the person who will be cleaning up after them.

The 15:57 train to Ore arrives packed full of school children. I get on the train and start to make my way to the front. Walking down the train I see ripped up pieces of takeaway boxes under the seats, alcohol cans on their side, spilt on the table, bins overflowing and toilets with the floor and toilet seat covered in urine.

I reach the front of the train and sit down as I am a turn-around cleaner. I am not allowed to clean the train whilst in motion, so when the train terminates, I wait for a member of the train crew to walk through the train to make sure all passengers are off before notifying the driver that the train is empty.

I get up, put my gloves on, get a rubbish bag from my backpack and start cleaning – if only it was as straightforward as removing rubbish bags from bins or coffee cups from a table. Passengers will try to conceal rubbish by tucking it under their seat or putting it at the side of the seat where the heaters are. Others will just chuck food or drinks on the floor. But it’s OK as the cleaner will clean it.

Picture this: I’ve got my backpack on, full of various cleaning equipment. In one hand, I have a T‑shaped key used for opening the bins; in my other hand, I have a bin bag. I then have to constantly bend to pick-up rubbish from the floor or down the side of the seats, whilst carrying a bag of rubbish and all my equipment on my back. When I see coffee stains or tables that need sanitising, I have to continuously remove the back pack to retrieve the chemical needed to clean the table, using cheap one ply kitchen roll that ends up sticking to the table, making the job take twice as hard. I reach the second coach on the train, by which point I’m hot, and I’m starting to feel a strain in my lower back and arms. By the end of the second coach, I have at least half a bag of rubbish which I have to continue to take through the very narrow train, which isn’t easy – you either have to drag it on the ground or keep lifting the bag. I then must put the rubbish bag aside and clean the toilet in the same uniform that I will later eat my lunch or dinner in.

The company will only provide the bare minimum of what is legally required for outsourced cleaners, so that means there’s no overalls or shower facilities. Cleaning the toilet is always a challenge for us as turn-around cleaners, as we work away from the site where our equipment is stored. If the floor is covered in urine, we can notify the on-board supervisor and request them to notify a station where the turn-around cleaners have facilities to store mops and buckets on the platform. But that’s not always guaranteed, as other sites will also be understaffed or have poor equipment.

I do my best with the time I have. You would think I’d have at least 30 mins or an hour to complete all of the above. If the train is on time, I get around 13 mins to do a turn-around clean for an entire train.


There’s engineering work today, which means we have one more staff member on site than usual, but more trains per hour. As a Supervisor, I have a lot of paperwork to get done today, along with my cleaning duties. I sit in our store/​break room completing the daily K.P.I (key performance indicator) sheets and the weekly stocktake, which seems like a pointless task as we never receive what we order.

After finishing all the paperwork, I wasn’t feeling well so I had to leave work and lose five hours’ pay. I didn’t want to take more time off the following week, as I had agreed to cover my colleague’s annual leave. The daily threat of catching any illness circulating in an enclosed public workspace with little to no protection is a strain on our health as cleaners. Having to use your annual leave or not being able to afford time off for sickness is a common worry amongst my team. Whilst ill, we receive Statutory Sick Pay, which is not enough to pay for food for a week, let alone household bills and emergency outgoings.

Most of my colleagues have a system set up where, towards the end of the month, they will log in to the company portal daily to check for wage slips. As soon as they appear, they notify the rest of the staff so we can start to decrypt a very confusing summary of our monthly earnings to check if we’ve been paid properly. It’s a regular occurrence that pay packets are short.


There’s more engineering work today, so fortunately I have another staff member on site who would usually be working at Ashford. However, today we have more trains than usual as it is the London Marathon and there’s a Premier League match. I have an eight-coach train to clean in as little as nine minutes if the trains run on time.

This was one of the worst shifts I’ve done in a while. I could barely clean two coaches as the amount of rubbish was unbelievable. I was getting off the train with two full bags of rubbish from two coaches. Most of the toilets had to be locked and put out of use, due to a full tank or passengers destroying the facilities.

I left work feeling unappreciated and unfulfilled, as I was unable to complete the unrealistic challenges presented to me that day. On a day that the company knows will be busy, only being able to clean two out of eight coaches doesn’t make you feel good, as I know passengers waiting to board will have to travel in a state that can only be described as an in-transit dump.

This understaffing only fuels the trains are always dirty anyway” argument that we often hear when train cleaners take industrial action. The trains are not dirty because we are lazy; it’s because we are outsourced workers facing constant cutbacks. We simply cannot keep up.

Why I'm striking

All of the challenges we face daily are due to constant cuts that enable companies to turn a profit whilst pushing their work force further into poverty. Workers are increasingly suffering from bad physical and mental health, which could be avoided if staff were directly employed by the train operating company.

That’s why myself and my colleagues will continue to fight as members of the RMT union for better pay and pensions, a company sick pay scheme and travel benefits as workers on the railway. Our ultimate goal is to be brought back in-house, ending the scourge of outsourcing in the rail sector.


*Name has been changed for anonymity

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