Train firms blame wrong sort of dirt for the windows that can never be cleaned

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The Independent Online
AFTER THE wrong kind of leaves and the wrong type of snow, the railway industry has came with another first: the wrong sort of dirt.

Dust produced by the braking systems on Britain's oldest trains gets so ingrained into the windows it cannot be removed with normal cleaning. The only way to get the windows up to standard is to take the train out of service and clean it by hand.

The problem affects the ageing "slam-door" rolling stock and at least one train company has decided it is too expensive to remove. Rail travellers, especially in south-east England, have grown used to the brown patina on the windows that often obscures their view of rural Sussex, Kent and Surrey.

On a recent research journey by The Independent from London Victoria to Clapham Junction, the windows were so dirty that the famous view of Battersea power station was a blur through the windows on the 40-year- old train. Most of the windows were murky and each had a brown ring around the pane. But we were lucky. The driver, who asked not to be named, said it was a well-known problem, adding: "You should see the ones down to the South-east out of Charing Cross. Some of them haven't been cleaned for six months - they're so awful you can't see a bloody thing out of them."

Connex, the French owned rail group which runs slam-door stock on the SouthCentral and SouthEastern network in southern England, said it was aware of the problem.

A spokesman said it was caused by the old iron-brake shoes that produce an oxide when they grind against the steel tyre on the wheel. "The oxide dust eventually floats up the train bodywork and sticks to the window," he said.

The trains are put through a chemical-cleaning process but if the dirt is ingrained into the corners of the panes the brushes cannot reach it, leaving the brown ring around the edge. "The only way we can remove it is to treat each window by hand and that would mean taking the train out of service."

The trains are spruced up every two or three days during which they are cleaned using a special chemical solution designed to deal with the oxide stains. The spokesman said that to take the train out for longer would require balancing the frequency of the service with trying to obtain perfectly clean windows. Connex has made a franchise commitment to get rid of all slam-door trains on its SouthEastern network by 2006 but is under no similar obligation on SouthCentral. The Mk I train makes up about two-thirds of its stock of 2,300 carriages. Connex said its cleaning was no less intensive than under British Rail.

South West Trains, which runs commuter services through south-west London, Surrey, Hampshire and Dorset, denied its windows were uncleanable. As a subsidiary of the bus and train group Stagecoach, it runs about 100 four-carriage slam-door trains or half its fleet. A spokeswoman said: "We don't consider it uncleanable dust, it just requires more work. In the winter when it is more of a problem, every three months or so on a night shift we hand-bash the units and get to grips with the problem in a fairly physical way."

SWT has invested pounds 100m in new rolling stock and recently launched a drive to improve the cleanliness of its trains.

Mike Hewitson, secretary of the Rail Users Consultative Committee for southern England, called on rail companies to improve their cleaning.