Cleaning the London Underground: the unseen army of modern-day, minimum wage Tube ‘fluffers’
It’s a dirty job, but an unseen team of cleaners is doing it by hand – while the rest of London sleeps.
Equipped only with chisels, brushes and vacuum cleaners, they toil on hands and knees from midnight until 6am each night, scraping dust and dirt from 85 miles of Tube tunnels.
Wearing face masks and protective clothing, it is gruelling work in the warm, dimly lit tunnels.
Minimising the amount of debris – much of it iron oxide particles from train wheels grinding against the rails – is a key factor in Transport for London’s increased focus on improving the air quality Underground.
“It’s tough work but there is probably job satisfaction in it,” said Lilli Matson, TfL’s chief safety, health and environment officer. “We appreciate the work they do so much – it’s amazing. They do a fantastic job.
“We are taking the dust from the tunnels so that when the trains pass they don’t push it out like a piston into the stations.”
Two teams of eight, who work for TfL sub-contractors Cleshar, clean about 150m to 200m of track each night.
They focus on the dirtiest lines – the Bakerloo and the Central, where sharper bends cause more grinding.
The workers earn the London living wage of £11.95 an hour, and also receive a free annual Travelcard.
They are no longer known as “fluffers”, the name given to the gangs of women who were employed to clean the tunnels from before the Second World War until the 1990s.
TfL has commissioned experts at Imperial College to investigate the potential health risks posed by Tube dust. This will review how many Tube drivers and station staff go off sick with breathing problems.
Last year, landmark research from Queen Mary, University of London found that Tube dust had the potential to cause serious illness, such as pneumonia, in passengers and Underground staff.
The study said the dust — mainly iron and graphite particles — was toxic and able to enter the bloodstream via the nose.
Ms Matson said: “We know that the main portion is iron oxide, from the rails, but we also check for other metals like nickel and chromium. Our sampling shows that the levels are safe, but we need to keep an eye on it.
“We know there is a growing interest in dust levels and particulate matter, so we are really doubling down on our efforts to get the dust levels down and introduce new research that will further our understanding about any potential health impacts.”
TfL has increased its annual spending on tunnel cleaning from £1.5m to £2m a year.
It is also hoping that engineering innovations will find ways to mechanise the cleaning process, potentially by developing a “dustbuster” train or filters that automatically clean the air to prevent dust gathering.
“We would really like to make this easier, simpler, and to be able to do even more of the network,” Ms Matson said.
“I think we will increasingly find things that can directly take dust from the air and make the cleaning easier.”
New fleets of trains – the Piccadilly line is due to be upgraded from 2025 –also make a difference.
Ms Matson said: “The dust that we are hoovering up – that is coming from the rails, from people’s skin, their hair. New modern trains can make a real difference. If you look at the Elizabeth line, it’s very clean. We want to do more of that.”