Public transport during Covid-19: Can digital help make metro travel safe?

As metro operations resume in a graded manner, digital technologies can help demand management, social distancing, real-time information for authorities and passengers

Updated: Sep 7, 2020 06:12:42 PM UTC
Passengers are being disinfected before taking Delhi metro, on the first day of the restart of their operations, over five months suspension due to COVID-19 outbreak in New Delhi on September 7, 2020. Image: Amarjeet Kumar Singh/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Metro services have resumed across the country, except Maharashtra on Monday. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has issued Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) which prescribes how metros should operate during these difficult times.

Metros with more than one line are going to resume in a gradual manner with staggered daily hours of operations initially. Among a few of these guidelines includes mandatory wearing of face mask, installation of Aarogya Setu app, suitable markings inside the trains and stations for passengers and thermal screening with access to travel only to asymptomatic persons. It also includes sanitisation provisions at entry and regular sanitisation of all areas having human interface, no service in containment zones, increase in dwell time at certain metro stations, and making sure there is an increase in the intake of fresh air through the air-conditioning system. In addition to the SOP issued by the Centre, individual metro corporations are coming up with their own SOPs.

Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) will discontinue the use of tokens, alternate seats will have to be left vacant and no more than three people will be allowed in a lift at once. As per the protocol issued by Chennai Metro Rail Ltd (CMRL), passengers are advised to stand on alternate steps of escalator to maintain social distancing. Hyderabad Metrorail Limited is undertaking mock drills keeping in view various COVID scenarios. Similarly, the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited (BMRCL) will only allow 50 passengers at one time at the platforms, and therefore, the access to the stations will be controlled accordingly.

As metro operations resume in a graded manner, demand management will become a priority. Metro authorities will need to monitor the evolution of demand and the number of passengers in real time so that the planned supply can be increased if necessary. There will be times and locations where social distancing will become very difficult and particularly more challenging as more and more people slowly return to work. Metro authorities could prepare an operational plan for reducing congestion at stations. To help improve and continue to maintain social distancing, the train services may need to be increased specifically to create extra capacity on the network (not to attract more customers).

Image: Vinay Gupta

Covid-19 has changed the transport paradigm, moving focus from supply to demand, from transport infrastructure to service, from ready-made to tailored solutions. Technology will continue to drive this change in our transit ecosystem with greater intensity going forward.

Transit Agencies world over, including India, have been working tirelessly to find better digital solutions to make journeys safe, convenient and accessible. Covid-19 will fast forward these changes, especially around contactless ticketing, journey planning, crowd control and security. For example, only Smart Card holders (QR code users on the Airport Express Line) will be allowed in the Delhi Metro. Mumbai and Hyderabad metro already has ticket booking facility through Paytm. Metro authorities are also using technology for demand management and avoiding congestion. For example, through their travel app called “TfL Go”, Transport for London (TfL) is providing commuters information that they need on when the quieter times are for their journeys. Similarly, a new feature has been launched in the official app of Metro de Madrid provides real time information regarding level of occupancy in stations vis-à-vis its maximum capacity. They have also introduced a new automated system which limits admission to passengers when the expected capacity is surpassed at the stations, and this is validated through the entry gates.

All these measures obviously have deep financial implications as well. To ensure business continuity in a sustainable manner, metro corporations must revisit and re-calibrate their overall financial sustainability as resumption of services begins in a graded manner. Government support is equally imperative in this respect. To ensure financial stability, an alternate source of funding would need to be identified on the lines of an Urban Transport Fund.

Since each metro corporations will have their own set of standard procedures, the Centre could review the operations and procedures of each metro, sometime after the start of operations and try to form a standard set of guidelines by learning from the results of each metro operations. Moreover, both the Metro Corporations and State Governments will need to do undertake significant IEC (Information, Education and Communication) campaigns to sensitise users regarding the SOP’s. The public transport outside the metro stations will also require SOP’s to ensure overall safety of the transit system and commuters. Benefit of the efforts put in by Metro Corporations will be totally lost if the public transport systems outside the station is in a business as usual mode.

Going forward, adoption of digital technologies, innovation and strict adherence to the guidelines will be the key factors in the fight against COVID-19. Needless to say, maximising flexibility of the transport service to continuously adopt to the evolving transit environment will be key.

The writer is Partner - Government & Public Sector, Strategy and Transactions at EY India

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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