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Used coffee cups are NOT litter insist some rail users: Train operators probe ‘the science of littering’

The cleanliness of trains across the country is a topic often in the spotlight, with operators battling to keep their carriages clean for the thousands of people who step aboard every day.

But a research project led by the train operator Northern has opened-up a debate about what actually constitutes littering.

According to some respondents to a study of nearly 2,000 regular rail users, used coffee cups left on trains are not considered to be litter. But do you agree?

Faring worse in people’s opinions were strong smelling food, which people said impacts their perception of whether or not an environment is clean, even if the food in question is fresh and being eaten by another passenger.

Interestingly, those who admitted to littering say they do feel guilty about it – particularly the impact on other passengers – which leaves train operators with hope that habits can be changed and people can be encouraged to take their rubbish away with them. 

Each year, the train presentation team at Northern carries out 695,000 ‘carriage cleans’. 

Some of that cleaning is to be expected given the natural wear and tear of thousands of people using the trains every day. However, an excess of litter is just one example of an avoidable issue that takes up time the team could otherwise spend on more important measures, like 'touch point' cleans. 

In November 2022, Northern released a video highlighting the monumental task its team of 500 train presentation operatives have to keep its fleet of 345 trains clean and tidy.

A year later, they started using a new chemical-free cleaning product called Clean Zero to cut down on the use of chemicals and reduce plastic waste.

And now, this research project is the latest measure Northern has taken to improve the customer experience on-board its trains.  

Northern collaborated with South Western Railway and Cowry Consulting on the project and has been nominated for a Railway Innovation Award for their efforts.

Jack Commandeur, engineering director at Northern, said: “We’re always looking for ways to better understand our customers' wants and needs.

“This project has been an interesting one and shows how a seemingly ‘open and shut’ topic actually has some fascinating behavioural science going on beneath the surface."

With the results of the research now in, Northern and South Western Railway are investigating potential interventions they can trial to help combat the issue and encourage customers to take their rubbish away with them.

The results of any trials will be shared with other train operators to ensure the widest possible benefit for rail users.

The Railway Innovation Awards celebrate the achievements of organisations and individuals who are pushing the rail industry forward by developing innovative ideas.

Northern, South Western Railway and Cowry Consulting have been nominated in the Passenger Experience category and will find out if they have won the award at a special ceremony in London on Friday (21 June).

For more information, visit:

Northern is the second largest train operator in the UK, with 2,500 services a day to more than 500 stations across the North of England.


Image shows coffee cup at station


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