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March 1, 2012

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Cleaning subway a Herculean job

WITH one hand holding a dustpan attached to a long handle and two big tool bags hanging around the other shoulder, Zhu Xuezhen, a 49-year-old short-figured woman and sanitation worker on the local Metro, took small but quick steps like a cleaning robot on a Line 2 train in the Guanglan Road station yesterday afternoon.

She was allowed no more than a couple of minutes, or one Metro stop's travel interval, to collect as much litter as possible from all eight carriages she cruised through before she had to hop on a return train running on the opposite track to repeat the task.

Zhu and two colleagues, all middle-aged women, told Shanghai Daily they work 11 hours a day at dizzying speed and are barely allowed major breaks. But still, their speed seemed far from sufficient to handle the heavy amount of waste dumped on the trains - mostly food and drink leftovers, plastic bags and advertising fliers.

"You just take your time. I really have to hurry up," Zhu told the reporter as she paced toward the end of the train. She swiftly moved across the crowd and nodded to a seated passenger, tipping him by gesture to move aside so that she could pick up a food package dumped on the window frame behind. Zhu was highly skilled, but she still missed a half-eaten steamed bun lying in front of the nearby train gate, likely to pollute the shoes of the first incomer at the next stop.

As the city's Metro traffic volume continues breaking records, train littering is becoming more of a nuisance, drawing riders' complaints and pressuring the limited sanitation manpower.

Metro officials said rubbish collected from trains running on an average local Metro line has risen to more than 100 kilograms per day, with one-third being food leftovers. And the number keeps soaring.

"We run into everything on the trains now, even diapers directly placed on the benches and babies' excrements on the floor. You wouldn't want to hear it all," Zhu said with a mixture of scorn and embarrassment.

Her fellow worker, a 52-year-old surnamed Lu, said the situation was especially bad during the morning rush hour.

"Half-drunk packaged bean juice, all kinds of breakfasts and you name it. We also carry cleaning rags in our tool bags to clean the floor when the dumped drinks are just flowing everywhere. But given the short time allowed, it's a challenging task," Lu said, rubbing her sweating gray hair.

Inside their 3-square-meter workshop in the Guanglan Road station, the three sanitation workers from the same shift talked about their job as the air was filled with a choking odor from the rubbish stacks lying in the corner. Whenever one train arrived, one of them would grab her tools and dash out, jump onboard and then return to clean another train on the next stop.

Their busy-paced work has not stopped people from littering, Lu noted. "'Cleaning is your duty and that's why you are hired. So just do your job!' Some riders said this to us when we tried persuading them to stop littering," she said.

The workers said holiday seasons always leave them with "nightmarish memories" not only because rubbish volume goes up but also because of frequent encounters with vomit from many holiday revelers.

The littering has spurred increasing complaints from the public.

Yin Wei, a media coordinator with Shanghai Metro, said eating might be banned through legislation in the future but there's no clear scheme yet.


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