Disinfecting public transport: How to clean a bus, train or ferry

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Man disinfecting bus with Graco SaniSpray handheld electrostatic sprayer

Lately, one of the most talked about safety issues in public transport is sanitization. Our nation’s mass transit systems are at the core of a thriving economy. Protecting riders from contagions during their commute is essential. But figuring out how to clean a bus or any other mass transit vehicle isn’t always easy.

Let’s look at how our three busiest systems handle the cleaning and sanitizing process. We’ll learn what they’re doing well and where things could be improved. By the end, you’ll have a pretty good idea of just what needs to happen for these vehicles to be considered truly safe.

Cleaning the busiest public transport systems in America

Based on ridership, these are the three busiest public transport systems in America: New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

The New York City Subway

The New York City Subway is the busiest public transit system by far. It moves nearly 2.75 billion riders annually. Trains run on 27 lines servicing 472 stations.

The Metro Transit Authority (MTA) outlines their cleaning routine online. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve made quite a few changes. New technology is actively being tested, including:

  • Electrostatic sprayers
  • Ultraviolet lights
  • Antimicrobial air filters
  • Antimicrobial biostats

While these new strategies could be highly effective, the MTA has struggled to use them effectively. Because sanitizing efforts have been taken care of largely by third-party contractors, efforts have been inconsistent. The New York Times has reported on major sanitizing shortfalls, including some cleaners being sent to work with minimal training and no proper PPE or equipment.

The Washington Metro

While much smaller in scale than the NYC Subway, the Washington Metro still serves over 237 million riders annually. It operates across 6 lines and 91 stations.

The Washington Metro also outlines some enhanced cleaning steps on their website. Their daily sanitizing efforts for trains, buses and stations include:

  • Mopping
  • Wiping down high-touch surfaces
  • Using electrostatic sprayers on high-touch surfaces
  • Rapid disinfection after a report of bodily fluids or a symptomatic rider

The Chicago “L”

The “L” has operated for more than 125 years and currently serves nearly 220 million riders annually. It has 8 lines and 146 stations and is run by the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA).

The CTA claims to have “one of the most rigorous cleaning regimens of any U.S. transit agency.” This regimen includes:

  • Wiping down high-touch surfaces with disinfectant every day before service
  • Periodic disinfection of high-touch surfaces in between runs
  • Regular deep cleanings with electrostatic sprayers
  • Anti-microbial surface coatings

While these steps are good, reports have shown that execution hasn’t always hit the mark. When the CTA itself sent in covert inspectors back in May 2020, they found cleaning crews often missed high-touch surfaces and lacked sufficient time to clean thoroughly.

Is anyone getting it right?

From this brief survey, it seems that most big public transportation systems still have room for improvement. This isn’t surprising. These systems are extremely complex and enormous in scale.

Some highlights from current efforts include:

  • Clear messaging about official cleaning routines
  • Testing and adopting advanced sanitizing solutions
  • Targeting high-touch surfaces with more cleanings

However, there are some major areas for improvement as well. Generally, these systems could be:

  • Standardizing training to improve outcomes
  • Using advanced sanitizing solutions more regularly. Many systems currently use them once per day or less.
  • More support for cleaning teams with ample, appropriate PPE

How to clean a bus (or train, or ferry)

Finally, how do you best clean and disinfect a public transportation vehicle? The basic steps are simple:

  1. Remove trash and grime. Any substance covering a surface can block the disinfecting chemicals you apply later. Sweep or vacuum loose debris. Use soap and water to loosen and remove materials adhered in place.
  2. Deploy disinfection. This can take a variety of forms, from wiping things by hand to using an electrostatic spray machine. Check out our blog Pros and cons of 5 common sanitizing solutions to learn more about the different disinfection methods out there.
  3. Rinse as necessary. Depending on the method and chemicals you use, you may need to rinse with water to remove leftover residue. Check the labels on any disinfection chemicals or wipes you use to see if this step is necessary.
  4. Continue to disinfect high-touch surfaces throughout service. Only disinfecting at the end-of-service or during a weekly deep-cleaning is far from enough to protect riders. Use an EPA-approved disinfectant to spot-clean high-touch surfaces such as: seats, door handles, handrails, windows, tray tables, pull cords, stop buttons, etc. Most disinfectants work on hard, non-porous surfaces. However, fabric surfaces like upholstered seats need different treatments. Our blog on how to choose a disinfectant covers the selection process in more detail.

Of course, these steps all demand significant effort on the part of the cleaner. The electrostatic sprayers at EnviroPro Solutions will speed things up significantly while saving on chemical costs.

Electrostatic technology allows chemicals to evenly coat and wrap around complex shapes. This means even the trickiest vehicle interiors can be sanitized quickly, and without the operator ever having to touch a contaminated surface.

Got your disinfection figured out, but stumped by some serious stench problems? Check out our blog post on finding a good odor eliminator.