Train travel after Covid: Why clean is the new safe

Train travel after Covid: Why clean is the new safe

Imagine you’re on a train back in 2019. Your seat feels a bit sticky. There’s a half-eaten sandwich on the table opposite. And you’d rather not think what’s smeared on that window.

It’s all a little … grubby. But you don’t let the dirt bother you too much, because that’s all it is – dirt. It won’t hurt most people, and it’s just one of those things you get sometimes with public transport and facilities.

Now visualise the same experience in 2021. Feels different, doesn’t it? Because the dirt is no longer just dirt – it’s a hazard. One that puts you on edge, sours your journey and, worst of all, could pose a serious threat to your health. 

Covid and the new passenger mindset

Before Covid, cleanliness didn’t make or break the passenger experience. Now, however, in the customer’s mind, a dirty train or station is a dangerous place. And if people don’t feel safe using your services, they’ll do all they can to avoid them. 

This mental shift poses a challenge for train operating companies (TOCs). Tempting passengers back is their priority, now people are travelling more for work and leisure. But they also need to keep them returning – and they can only do that by providing a consistently spotless customer experience.

At the height of the pandemic, it made short-term sense to hire more staff to clean more often. But now the worst is seemingly behind us, throwing extra people at the problem is no longer sustainable.

To maintain value for money, TOCs must aim to return to pre-Covid staffing levels as soon as possible. And they must use the personnel they have more efficiently, focusing their cleaning efforts where they can have the most impact.

Cleaning up wasteful processes with tech and data

Let’s take station toilets as a current example of cleaning inefficiency. Toilets are checked and cleaned on a time-defined schedule, which could be hourly for staffed stations or three times a week for unstaffed.

And it’s easy to see why those facilities would need special care in Covid times and beyond. Toilet presentation is a key factor in how passengers assess the overall cleanliness and quality of their journey. 

But what if no passengers have visited your station’s washroom since you last cleaned it? Is it sensible to send cleaners even though nothing’s changed since their last visit, and their presence is adding no value?

Equally, if 200 people hit the loos minutes after your scheduled clean, they may well need some extra attention. 

With the right station monitoring, you can pinpoint where your cleaners’ efforts are most needed. By blending real-time data with information gathered from planned general inspections, service quality audits and the like, you can prioritise and assign tasks to the right people at the right time. This reduces inefficiencies and eliminates busywork, while actively driving improvements in passenger experience

You might find, for example, that your cleaners’ time could be better spent wiping down frequently used handrails, escalators and counters, or focussing on areas such as brightwork and ticket machines. These are all highly visible to passengers. And when they sparkle, it sends a subconscious message: this station is clean. This company cares. I’m safe on their services.

Remove fear, build trust, increase satisfaction

Breaking down that fear barrier will be key to getting people back on the trains regularly. Customer satisfaction will increasingly be defined by how safe people feel – and their feelings of safety will be heavily influenced by the cleanliness of their surroundings.

In my last post, I explained how the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail has put the passenger experience at the heart of everything. And how TOCs’ rewards will soon be directly linked to hitting their targets around service quality.

Those looming reforms ramp up the urgency for TOCs to get their service-quality processes in order, particularly where cleaning and ad-hoc maintenance are concerned.

By using tech and data to deploy resources smartly, and anticipate and solve problems proactively, they have the chance to stay one step ahead of the auditors. And to build an organisational culture of continuous improvement, customer care and – you guessed it – cleanliness.

Because when your facilities feel clean, your passengers will feel safe. When your passengers feel safe, they’ll enjoy using your services. And when they enjoy using your services, everyone wins. Not least your company.