The invisible army of modern-day minimum-wage tube fluffers
It’s dirty work, but an invisible team of cleaners is doing it by hand – while the rest of London sleeps.
Armed only with chisels, brushes and vacuums, they work on their hands and knees from midnight to 6am every night, scraping dust and dirt from 85 miles of subway tunnels.
Wearing a face mask and protective clothing, it is grueling work in the warm, dimly lit tunnels.
Minimizing the amount of debris – much of it iron oxide particles from train wheels grinding on the rails – is a key factor in Transport for London’s increased focus on improving underground air quality.
“It’s hard work, but there’s probably job satisfaction,” said Lilli Matson, TfL’s Chief Safety, Health and Environment Officer. “We really appreciate the work they’re doing – it’s amazing. You are doing a fantastic job.
“We take the dust out of the tunnels so the trains don’t push it like a piston into the stations as they pass.”
Two teams of eight, working for TfL subcontractor Cleshar, clean around 150 to 200 meters of track every night.
They focus on the dirtiest lines – Bakerloo and Central, where sharper turns 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,” as the gangs of women who were used to clean the tunnels from before WWII until the 1990s were called.
TfL has commissioned experts from Imperial College to study the potential health risks from pipe dust. It checks how many subway drivers and station employees get sick with respiratory problems.
Last year, a landmark study by Queen Mary, University of London found that tube dust has the potential to cause serious illnesses like pneumonia among passengers and tube workers.
According to the study, the dust — mostly iron and graphite particles — was toxic and could enter the bloodstream through the nose.
Ms Matson said: ‘We know the majority of it is iron oxide from the rails but we are also looking for other metals such as nickel and chromium. Our sampling shows the levels are safe, but we need to keep an eye on them.
“We know there is growing interest in dust levels and particulate matter, so we are redoubling our efforts to reduce dust levels and introducing new research that will improve our understanding of possible health effects.”
TfL has increased its annual tunnel cleaning spending from £1.5m to £2m per year.
It also hopes technical innovations will find ways to mechanize the cleaning process, perhaps by developing a “dustbuster” train or filters that automatically clean the air to prevent dust build-up.
“We really want to make this easier and simpler and be able to do even more with the network,” said Ms. Matson.
“I think we’re going to increasingly find things that take dust right out of the air and make it easier to clean.”
New train fleets – the Piccadilly line is due to be modernized from 2025 – are also making a difference.
Ms Matson said: “The dust we pick up – that’s coming from the rails, from people’s skin, from 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.”