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Train presentation crews: the hidden heroes

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Punctuality, reliability, and cost are key concerns for customers when choosing to travel by rail. But another consideration, and one often taken for granted, is cleanliness. It wouldn’t be possible to kick back and enjoy a journey if you couldn’t be certain of a particular level of hygiene and, to this end, a hidden army of dedicated staff works around the clock to make train journeys as pleasant as possible.

To get a greater insight of our network’s train presentation crews, RailStaff sat down with Charlie Hatcher, head of train presentation at South Western Railway (SWR). He talked us through the day-to-day work of a train presentation crew, their training, and the career opportunities that come with the role. Furthermore, he discussed the techniques and technologies employed to keep the SWR fleet spick and span, and the company’s commitment to sustainability.

A moving objective

One of the major challenges of keeping passenger trains clean and tidy is linked to their primary purpose – moving customers from point A to point B – and the logistics involved in maintaining a high level of hygiene are incredible.
“Keeping a train clean doesn’t just involve one team working in a depot at night,” explains Charlie. “It’s about maintaining a level of cleanliness throughout the day.”

“We operate three levels of clean at SWR, which is fairly common across all Train Operating Companies (TOCs). These are: turnaround clean, where a team will board the train at a terminus and ensure it is clean and tidy for the return journey; an overnight standard clean, where a greater focus is placed on hoovering, sweeping, mopping, and making the train fit for daily service; and then there’s our 30-day heavy clean programme where we’ll have a team dedicated for an entire shift on a single train, really focusing on the details.”

As well as this, the train presentation team must respond to issues as they arise during the day. One of the ways they do this is via reports from the Solano app, which allows on-train colleagues to flag problems to the team for them to rectify.

Like many other staff working on the railway, train presentation crews tend to operate behind the scenes and rarely receive the public praise that their work demands. However, says Charlie, the fact they often go unnoticed is a sign they’re doing their best work:

“We often talk about the fact that ours is an invisible team, but what we take from that is that we’re doing a good job. As a customer, if you don’t notice that your train is spotlessly clean, it means everything is running to plan. When trains are dirty, customers will make their voices heard, so we celebrate the fact that we’re meeting their expectations.”

That said, SWR is looking to carry out more in-transit cleaning, to bring even greater reassurance to customers and relieve the pressure on its presentation crews.

“I’m a strong believer that the visibility of train presentation activity is comforting to customers,” says Charlie. “It’s something that we’ve been trialling for the past year, specifically between Basingstoke and Winchester, and we’re looking to branch that out further on our network. As well as giving customers greater reassurance, it takes the pressure off the very short turnaround time we have at stations, where staff may only have five to 10 minutes to work through an eight or 10-car train.”

Credit: iStockphoto

Training and development

Working on the train presentation team is no stroll in the park, and achieving the required level of competency relies on hard work and dedication. Staff usually receive their training once they’ve joined SWR and the company uses buddying-up systems and regular capability assessments to ensure that trainees are on track. Some tasks are more complex than others, for example maintaining the cleanliness of controlled emission toilets (CETs), but trainees continue to be supervised even once they’re qualified and established in the role. For many, this is just the start of a long and rewarding career in rail.

“One thing I really like about my department is the opportunity for development,” says Charlie.

“I’ve seen so many examples of individuals joining our train presentation teams at entry level, before moving on to supervisory, and even regional manager positions.”

“We see team members move on to other parts of the business, gain long service awards, and finish their careers in influential positions. The training we provide when people join the train presentation team helps them to develop their future careers and begins their journey within the company.”


As in all areas of the rail industry, indeed across all industries, sustainability is now a critical concern for SWR. Whether it’s considering the fate of onboard waste, eliminating harmful chemicals from cleaning products, or reducing CO2 emissions in the supply chain, the train presentation team works hard to protect the environment.

“Sustainability is something that my team and I are really very focused on,” says Charlie. “And we really do feel that we have the power to do something about it.”

“We’re involved in a number of successful sustainability initiatives. For example, we’ve been segregating waste at our depots for around five or six years, and 100% of recyclable waste now avoids landfill. This initiative involves waste segregation officers who work in the depots at the end of the nightshift, physically sorting waste to ensure that the recyclable and general waste is separated.

“Another initiative is around the use of chemical cleaning products. Naturally, cleaning products are associated with harsh chemicals, and we’re very conscious of that. One cleaning technology we’re looking at is de-ionised water, which draws bacteria off surfaces without the need for a chemical reaction.”

De-ionised water can be made by running mains water through a machine which removes ions and natural minerals such as sodium, calcium, iron and copper. As de-ionised water is deprived of these contaminants, it’s keen to regain them and return to a more stable state, by absorbing them from surrounding sources. In doing this, it attracts the dirt, bacteria, and other contaminants which collect on surfaces.

“We’ve run swab tests on trains cleaned with de-ionised water using an ATP machine, and the results that come back have shown that it’s as good if not better than some of the cleaning products we’ve used previously,” Charlie says.
As well as reducing the use of potentially toxic substances which can eventually make their way into the environment, the use of chemical-free cleaning methods has further benefits. The simple act of transporting cleaning products around the country contributes to CO2 emissions, as HGVs are the primary mode of transport. In addition, it reduces the requirement of staff to use single-use PPE, such as nitrile gloves, minimising waste. From a safety standpoint, it also reduces the risk of exposing train presentation crews to potentially hazardous products.

As a further extension of its drive towards sustainability, SWR is doing more to ensure its fleet stays cleaner for longer, and with a minimum of intervention. The fleet team is trialling a hybrid seat cover which blends flat cloth and moquette upholstery, on seven of its Class 450 Desiro trains at Bournemouth depot. The new product aims to achieve the best of both worlds, combining the modern look of flat cloth with the easier to clean properties of moquette. The replaceable covers are sent for an intensive clean to be restored and brought back into service, replacing other covers which in turn can be restored and returned.

“In recent years, the industry as whole has moved away from traditional moquette fabric towards the more modern flat cloth material, which is woven more tightly with a shorter cut. However, it transpired that it is a real challenge to clean visible stains out of flat cloth.

“After trying different means of extracting stains and treating the cloth we spoke with a company called Diamond Rail Services who presented an idea of a moquette/flat cloth hybrid, which still uses shorter fibres but is not as tightly woven. We’re currently trialling this and look forward to seeing the results.”

Credit: SWR

Working together

Collaboration within the industry is an increasingly common occurrence, especially when it comes to environmental concerns. Charlie notes that this has been a growing trend since the Covid pandemic, and one that will bring huge benefits to his team.

“Something positive that came out of the Covid situation is that the industry is now trying to work more closely both internally and with external suppliers. As such, back in late 2022, I thought it would be a good idea to set up a cross-TOC working group focused on train presentation.”

Since then, Charlie has been in touch with heads of train presentation from across the TOCs to share ideas and collaborate. The initiative has been a great success.

“We’ve had six meetings so far, where we’ve discussed common problems and actively shared best practices,” he says. “We’ve invited guest speakers and carried out site tours. There’s no competitive vibe within the group, and that’s something that’s great about this industry. It also means we can work together as an industry on issues that might be getting public attention – for example, the recent talk in the media about bed bugs.”

Understated stars

Though they rarely receive the praise they deserve, the efforts of train presentation crews are critical to the customer experience, and their work has far wider ramifications than you would first imagine.

With implications for health, wellbeing, the environment, and passenger satisfaction, their work cuts across all aspects of the industry and leads the way in many.

Though it’s a role that has previously existed in the background, it’s time for a change. Train presentation deserves to step out from behind the curtain and take its place on the main stage.

Lead image credit: SWR