Unsung heroes: End-of-line cleaners race clock to sweep, scrub and pick up trash on trains


Unsung heroes: End-of-line cleaners race clock to sweep, scrub and pick up trash on trains

BART Senior Web Producer

Imagine cleaning a space longer than two football fields that's been occupied by thousands of people. There's the regular wear-and-tear of dirt from shoes and sticky fingers; accidental messes; and intentional misuse.

Imagine doing that cleaning on a moving train carrying all your equipment.

In under 10 minutes.

This Herculean effort happens seven days a week by unsung heroes, the end-of-line train cleaners at BART.

"Our staff is very good and very dedicated. They take a lot of pride in having the trains clean for the patrons," says Juan Matta, Manager of Transit Vehicle Cleaning. "They want to make sure nothing gets by them, and that the patrons have a nice, clean place to sit and feel comfortable when they ride."

There are many types of cleaners at BART, but end-of-the line staff have an especially tough task. They board trains at the last stop, and, depending on which line, have to do their cleaning as that train keeps moving into the yard where it switches operators.

"While they're riding they pick up trash, spot-mop spills, pick up any biowaste, and clean that train before it turns around and heads back out in the opposite direction," says Matta, who recently accompanied a ridealong to show how the crews accomplish this work.

Last week, on a warm, sunny day at Pittsburg/Bay Point Station, we got to see them in action. A train pulled in and -- boom! -- three cleaners boarded a train in the early afternoon, racing the clock.

At one end of the train was a big, gooey spill, that had made rivulets under several seats from the motion of the train. It looked to be a milky, sugary latte, with a faint smell of coffee and a sludgy texture. The cleaner literally ran to the car with her mop and made quick work of the mess.

At the other end of the train, a cleaner retrieved a new seat cushion from storage to replace one that had been ripped out of its space and damaged. 

The cleaners always wear gloves for safety and use grabbing devices known as "pick sticks" to retrieve debris, filling large garbage bags on nearly every run, even outside the peak commute time. They are masters at keeping their balance while they bend, reach and lift as the train lurches along. It's hard physical labor.
"We hire experienced janitorial people that have at least a year of industrial janitorial experience before coming to BART, so these are people that are knowledgeable about the equipment and how to pick up spills," Matta says. "We give them additional training at BART as far as how to clean on a moving train safely, how to keep yourself safe around patrons and how to keep the patrons safe."

Depending upon what line you ride, you may see the cleaners on your train. At Pittsburg/Bay Point, for example, the cleaners stayed on the train as it continued to the BART to Antioch transfer station, so they were working around riders who were on the way to Antioch.

They say it's gratifying when they interact with their regular riders who thank them for their efforts, or share a smile or elbow bump of appreciation. On occasion, if a person appears to be passed out on a train in the way of their cleaning, they'll alert their manager who will coordinate with BART Police to check on the person's welfare, so that the area can be cleaned at the next opportunity.

Their partners are mid-line, rapid-response cleaners,  a fairly new initiative designed to address the worst messes that can't wait until the end of the line. Another new development is the "Report Biohazard" feature on the BART mobile site at m.bart.gov; you can use this to report such waste to get the quickest possible response. A link to the mobile site is also on the BARTWatch app for easy access.

How else can customers help?

"They can push the intercom call button at either end of the train car and let the train operator know that there's a mess on the car," Matta says. "They need to tell the train operator the car number, which is right above the call button for easy reference. The train operator will then report it to our central control center to be dispatched to the closest cleaner."

You can help, too, by not leaving trash behind; take it with you to the concourse level, where you can find garbage receptacles. And please observe the rule of no eating or drinking on trains; if you must bring your morning cup of joe on board, keep it in a sealed container, hold it securely, and don't imbibe until you're out of the paid area.

The end-of-line cleaners work Monday through Friday from 5 am to 9 pm and on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 10 am to 6 pm.  "They do a great job of working very quickly," Matta says. "They have between 5 and 10 minutes, depending on the schedule of the train. A 10-car train is about 700 feet long and they have walk that entire train from car to car before it turns around and heads back the other way."

Another layer in BART's train cleaning is the deep-clean that happens every night in the yards, on graveyard shift when trains are not running for passenger service.  It’s all part of the never-ending war on grime.