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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Train Conductors to Keep an Eye on Toilets

Between checking tickets, handing out sheets and taking orders for tea, train conductors must find time for a particularly thankless task - keeping a vigilant eye on the toilet and its frequent visitors.

"Diarrhea sufferers will be forced to get off trains," the Moscow Railways said in a press release distributed last week.

Further down, the announcement explained that by diarrhea sufferers, or ponosniki, it was referring only to carriers of infectious gastrointestinal diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhoid, and that passengers suspected of carrying these diseases would be inspected by doctors and sent to clinics.

Natalya Gafarova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow Railways, said such measures are taken every year by the Moscow Railways, one of the 17 branches of the Russian Railways, in an attempt to make sure the 36 trains it runs are sanitary.

But this year, with the advent of a press service at the Moscow Railways, the policy is being publicized for the first time, provoking a storm of calls from curious journalists.

But Gafarova insisted there was nothing surprising about the policy.

"When passengers travel in the summer they take fruit, vegetables and chicken in plastic bags with them or buy pies with cat meat at train stops, and then there is a chance they will either get food poisoning or an infectious disease," she said.

"Russian trains are a place where it's possible to catch an infectious disease," said Gennady Sayenko, director for medical services at the American Medical Center, who has been a specialist in infectious diseases for 35 years. He explained that if a disease carrier doesn't wash his hands well, infection can spread fairly quickly on trains, where one or two lavatories are used by 18 to 54 passengers, depending on the type of carriage.

To be able to determine if a passenger needs medical assistance, conductors have to pass an exam on basic medical knowledge.

If a conductor sees a passenger going to the toilet unusually often, he is supposed to ask about the passenger's health. If the conductor suspects it's not simple food poisoning, but a serious disease, he calls in a doctor at the nearest station to make a final decision.

As a result of the policy, 12 passengers were removed from trains last year and five this year, Gafarova said.

"You can always tell if a passenger is sick from the moment he gets on the train," said Alexei Potashenko, a conductor from the Pavlodar-Akmola-Moscow train, which travels to Kazakhstan and back.

Potashenko gave a brief description of the special equipment to deal with ill passengers, such as buckets for vomit and isolation sheets soaked in chlorine that are hung around their seat. But he added that he had never had to use his medical knowledge during his 12 years on the railways.

Some of Potashenko's colleagues did not seem as eager to assist ill passengers.

"Conductors don't have the time to stand near lavatories and watch the passengers," said Natalya Dunyushkina, who supervises the Bashkortostan Ufa-Moscow train. "They [sick passengers] will come themselves, because they won't be able to stand the pain."

Meanwhile, passengers were doubtful that conductors would be vigilant enough to find sick passengers.

"The trains are horrible. Indifference is everywhere," said Natalya Kustova as she waited to board her Penza-bound train at Kazansky Station.

Dmitry Yanin, coordinator of regional programs for the Confederation of Consumer Societies, said he approved of the railways' policy toward ponosniki. But he said the trains had a long way to go before they would become safe and sanitary.

"The more important problem that railways should deal with is when a healthy passenger gets on the train and gets ill while traveling," he said, adding that some people have contracted pneumonia on trains because conductors keep windows open to compensate for out-of-order air conditioning. Yanin said that some passengers in this situation are suing the railways, and their cases are still pending.