There are lots of benefits to steam cleaning seat covers – it’s quick, cheap, eco-friendly, can be done in situ and there’s no need to use strong detergents or hazardous chemicals.

BUT it has a major downside… It’s not really cleaning them!

How come? Well, seat upholstery on trains has a fire protection coating. So all steam cleaning does is simply break down that fire protection coating, along with the fibres in the seat covers, meaning the covers have a shorter lifespan, there is no elimination of bacteria or viruses and subsequently high upholstery replacement costs.

Time to get serious about seat cover cleaning.

Seat cover cleaning has always languished at the bottom of many operator’s cleaning schedules. A quick mop of any spillages and job done, right? More ‘obvious’ surfaces in washroom facilities, floors and grab poles have always been given priority for cleaning and disinfection.

However, it’s clear that over the last 18 months cleaning procedures have been given much more attention… And press! Hands up if you’ve seen the large teams of cleaners geared up with fogging equipment to clean and disinfect trains between operation times?! Great for the good PR.

Passengers are so much more savvy about levels of cleanliness than they were 18 months ago, and with good reason. An example of (one of many!) tweets from a passenger recently stated: “At least I feel assured on my first outing on a train for 5 months, that @xxxxxxx are keeping it nice and clean. Filthy and looks like it’s not been cleaned for days. Maybe working from home is the future.”

The hassle of tackling something that’s not visible has been the very hard lesson we’ve all had to learn over the last 18 months, and we’re still finding that seat cover-cleaning is not being carried out sufficiently, even though passengers’ exceptions have rightly gone up.

Seat covers are either missed-off official cleaning procedures, possibly due to the deep pile that easily hides the “invisible” contaminants that lurk beneath, or given a quick tickle with a steam cleaner.

A recent study mapping bacteria levels on different surfaces in the London Underground by Zavamed shows there are 6.5x more bacteria on the train seat covers than on the train toilet seats!*

This is also supported by an earlier study from Yeh et al in 2011 where they swabbed 8 cm2 areas and found the mean bacterial colony counts were 97.1 on bus and train floors, 80.1 in cloth seats, 9.5 on handrails and 2.2 on windows.

At TBM Rail we offer a dry cleaning & fibre protection service for seat covers. To date, we have dry cleaned 400,000 seat covers. Although this number seems large, in context it’s actually just the tip of the iceberg and we are passionate about changing the industry’s mindset.

Dry cleaning seat covers properly is not a hassle and it can easily be carried out once every 12 months, with a whole train being serviced over a couple of days. We send our teams in to remove covers and take them away during the train’s downtime – overnight when it’s being refuelled or receiving an examination. Our team then hygienically dry clean and launder the covers, placing them in sealed bags before returning them to the train to be refitted. Job done.

We also offer a fibre protection service – FiberProtector – as part of the cleaning service. FiberProtector can be applied to seat covers and carpets and it works to protect the fabrics from water-based and oil-protection spills, UV sun-fading and makes for easier removal of stubborn stains. Along with prolonging the life of seat covers, FiberProtector supports decarbonisation plans with fewer chemicals used or water required.

Since using FiberProtector, one of our customers has reduced the time spent by cleaners cleaning seat covers in situ without removing them by 70-80%.

As one of the most highly contaminated surfaces in a train after floors, seat covers should be hygienically cleaned as part of an ongoing maintenance programme. Not only to ensure trains are maintained an attractive and pleasant environment for passengers, but also as part of an advanced cleaning plan to tackle the transmission of infections. An important consideration as we return to a new kind of normal.

Are you giving seat covers enough focus in your cleaning procedures?