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More than £6.5 million spent on ill-fated tunnel-cleaning train scheme

Transport for London (TfL) says mobile power units deployed in trial will remain part of Tube's engineering fleet

More than £6.5 million was spent by Transport for London (TfL) on its doomed tunnel-cleaning train project, it has been revealed.

The scheme was first mooted six years ago by then Mayor of London Boris Johnson as a dust-busting alternative to laborious manual cleaning of Tube tunnels, which is carried out nightly by workers known colloquially as ‘fluffers’ during so-called engineering hours when no passenger services run.

The plan to automate Tube cleaning hit the buffers, however - seemingly because vacuuming technology trialled on the London Underground was all too effective.

Simon Birkett, director of campaign group Clean Air in London, told E&T earlier this year: “My understanding is that the tunnel-cleaning train that TfL was trialling was too good, in that it was actually pulling asbestos out of the lining of tunnel walls.”

TfL has now confirmed a total of £6,732,879 was spent on its tunnel-cleaning project.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request from E&T, a TfL spokesman stressed the multi-million pound sum included spending on “some elements which have value independent of the tunnel-cleaning train, such as isolated traction sections at Northfields depot, which facilitate plant delivery”.

A City Hall insider described the sum as “significant”, however, and Liberal Democrat politician Caroline Pidgeon, who chairs a committee examining transport in London, has tabled a series of questions about Tube tunnel cleaning.

It had been reported that a specially adapted train was being supplied to TfL by Germany company Schoerling Kommunal to hoover up dust and dirt.

However, TfL has now told E&T this was not the case, adding: “We started a contract to develop a vehicle, and that included some manufacturing activity, but this was not delivered to London or used in a trial.”

Its spokesman said: “A proof-of-concept was carried out using a miniaturised purpose-built hand held nozzle/suction ‘cleaning head’ assembly in 2013.

“No vehicle was used as part of the trial, and the demonstration tunnel cleaning equipment was never mounted on a vehicle.

“As noted above, we are still in possession of the mobile power units that were developed, and these will now be used as part of our engineering fleet.”

They added: “Keeping London's Tube network clean is absolutely vital for the reliability of the service.

“Currently, London Underground’s extensive tunnel cleaning regime sees a team of around 50 staff out every night, working to keep the railway running reliably.”

TfL is now working with industry and academics to look at best practice from around the world and develop other ways to modernise tunnel cleaning, including trialling filters fitted to trains that catch dust before it settles.

Cleaning tunnels by hand is said to result in the removal of up to 150 kilograms of dust per kilometre.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, a Green Party politician in the House of Lords, said: “It’s a little bit distressing that TfL isn’t going ahead with this [the tunnel-cleaning train], but I do understand the problem.

“If it’s pulling out asbestos, that would make the problem worse.”

She added: “It’s great that there are 50 people in the tunnels cleaning every night, but that’s not solving the problem of pollution.”

Dust on the Underground system has been found to contain small amounts of some metals as well as traces of quartz and, of course, dead skin from the billion passengers who use the network each year.

Much of the metal dust is iron that comes from the interaction between the train wheels and the steel track and can cause electrical faults.

A study led by Dr Prashant Kumar at the University of Surrey recently found that commuters on the Underground were exposed to relatively high quantities of large-sized particulate matter which air quality campaigners say represents a health risk.

TfL insists levels of particulate matter on the Tube network are safe and remain well below the limit set by the Health and Safety Executive.

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