Practice social distancing on trains: a pious hope for Sydneysiders?

18 May 2020
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Although coronavirus restrictions are starting to ease in NSW, the difficulties associated with practising social distancing on public transport need to be addressed sooner rather than later, writes Dr Chinh Ho.

Weeks before NSW officially went to lockdown and workers were recommended to work at home, many workers with flexible working arrangements had already done so to reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus or spreading it unwittingly. Although workplaces were considered safe, and keeping a physical distance from colleagues and clients at work was not too difficult, practicing social distancing on the way to and from work was impossible for many public transport commuters, especially for those who work in the Central Business District (CBD) where trains and platforms are usually packed during the morning and afternoon commute time (7– 9 AM and 4–6 PM). As Australia has now flattened the curve, and NSW has started to relax restrictions, the roads are noticeably busier at present (i.e., May 2020), this will be the case for buses and trains in due course. With social distancing expected in public places, how feasible is it for Sydney Train commuters to practice social distancing, both inside the train and on the platform?

If avoiding touching surfaces when you are on a train or a bus sounds difficult to you, then keeping the recommended distance of 1.5 metres from your fellow travellers is nearly impossible. Pre-Covid, regular train commuters experienced “sardine trains” on the way to and from work, with standing room only (Humphries, 2017). Many train services during the morning and afternoon peak commute had passenger numbers exceeding 135% of seating capacity – a load that the transport authority considers as a crush load (red line in Figure 1). The example train service on the T4 line below shows this. Despite being quite ‘early’ (arriving at Bondi Junction at 8:15 AM), passengers travelling between Penhurst and Town Hall stations had no choice but to stand for this 28-minutes journey. This was hardly the busiest train on the Sydney Trains network, with many services on the T1 line carrying many more passengers, sometimes up to 1,700 per train.

Figure 1: Crowding profile of a Waterfall – Bondi Junction service on T4 line in the morning peak, pre-Covid.

With only 25% of the normal passenger volume (it is expected that one in four train users will travel by train post-Covid), practicing social distancing while inside the train will still be impossible. With the current configuration of train seats, one train car can only carry up to 38 passengers for social distancing to be observed (see illustration below: 13 passengers in the lower deck + 13 in the upper deck + 12 in the boarding/alighting areas). Most Sydney trains have 8 cars, totalling a social-distancing capacity of 304 passengers per train. For the example train on the T4 line above, this reduced capacity represents about 20% to 23% of the normal volume at the busiest stations (Wolli Creek to Redfern Station). Thus, only a quarter of the normal train volume would put many commuters in a close contact with their fellow travellers (i.e., travelling together in a closed space for more than 15 minutes).

Figure 2: Illustration of social distancing on one train-car

If practicing social distancing while on the train is somehow possible, CBD commuters will have another hurdle to jump over once arriving at their stations. Again, let’s start with some numbers. Pre-Covid, busy train stations in Sydney such as Central and Town Hall typically welcomed 4,000 to 5,000 travellers every 5 minutes during the peak hours (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Top 10 busiest stations in Sydney pre-Covid

As train passengers are not spread evenly across the station platforms, some platforms at these stations are much busier than others. For example, Platforms 16 and 17 at Central station are busiest in the morning, with more than 1,500 train users constantly present on these platforms between 8:30 am and 8:40 am of a working day pre-Covid (see Figure 4). Passengers on these platforms fluctuated between 500 and 1,200 per minute between 8 am and 8:30 am and between 8:40 am and 9:10 am.

Figure 4: Passenger numbers on Central and Town Hall platforms pre-Covid

Now, let’s assume the staggered start and finish times flagged by the Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof. Murphy (McElroy, 2020) will be fully adopted by both employers and employees. This means that workers can start working in the office any time in between 7 and 11 AM. This assumption is based on an observation that many businesses, including government offices, have core time, requiring staff to be in office between 10 AM and 3 PM (plus/minus 30 minutes). Assume further that businesses, schools, childcares and fellow travellers coordinate their business/school/work times perfectly so that the total number of passengers are spread evenly across trains that arrive at these stations in the 7–11am time window (i.e., the peak hours simply disappear). With these perfect conditions, the average number of passengers present on the platform when a train arrives will be around 300 for Platforms 16 and 17 at Central Station, but this will be close to 500 on Platforms 5 & 6, and 1,130 on Platform 3 at Town Hall Station. While co-ordinating train movements to make better use of platform space within these busy stations is an option to reduce passenger crowds, there is very little room for significant reduction since currently trains already arrive at these busy platforms every two minutes. Using just one platform as an example, the Town Hall Station Platform 3 has a total area of 1,100 m2 so these volumes translate to about one square metre per person, which is far lower than the density that the social distancing rule expects (4m2 per person).

Let us next consider that not everyone will need to go back to work in the office 5 days per week post-Covid. After all, the lockdown has forced non-essential workers to work at home, and as a result of adapting well to work at home, more employers may be more open to working at home arrangements (Hern, 2020). Assume that for any given working day post-Covid, only 3 in 5 CBD workers will go back to work in the office, this could mean that workers take turns to work in the office 3 days per week (and the rest working at home), or that out of 5 CBD workers, two will continue working from home five days per week while three workers will go back to the office every workday. Assume the same patterns for non-work travellers (i.e., only 3 out of 5 non-work trips to/from the CBD will be observed post-Covid). This lower need for travel would see passenger flows on the network reduced by 40%. For the busy platforms at a central station, passenger numbers could be reduced to 700–900 people per minute between 8 and 9:10 am. As Platforms 16&17 at Central Station have a combined area of 1400 m2, this reduced passenger flow translates to an area of 1.5 to 2 m2 per person, which still results in passengers standing closer than the recommended physical distance of 1.5 metres.

Let’s drive then! Surely one can afford to buy a car if working in the CBD? Yes, this may be true for many commuters, but having a car is different from being able to drive to work in the CBD every day or a few days a week. Parking costs are expensive in the City with the most affordable parking charging an early bird rate of around $20 to $40 per day, while it is not uncommon to see a parking cost as high as $120 per day in the Sydney CBD (Ison, Mulley, Mifsud, & Ho, 2014). As many people will choose to go by car to minimise social contact, parking demand will increase, and thus time taken to find parking locations will be longer, not to mention increased parking cost due to the laws of supply and demand. Traffic congestion in the City will be worse post-Covid. Expensive parking cost, longer time to park cars, and worsened traffic congestion would see many CBD workers giving up their intention to drive to the CBD. They will either continue to work at home or get on a train or bus to go to work, because driving is not affordable, both in time and cost.

It appears that train commuters working in the CBD do not have much room, both inside the trains and on the platforms, to practice social distancing. Limiting passengers on each train is an easier possibility that the transport authority should consider for long distance inter-regional travel where passengers can make advanced bookings and authorities can control how many tickets to sell each service. However, limiting passengers per train is extremely difficult for urban train lines. This is particularly true for the Sydney Trains Network which was designed as a commuting network with long train lines and many stops on each line to facilitate one-seat journeys. Also, at busy interchanges such as Redfern and Town Hall, transfer passengers contribute as much as 20% of the passenger flow (Ho, 2020 Forthcoming). This declines the possibility of limiting the number of passengers on the platform for stations with a small concourse area like Redfern since passengers does not have enough room to practice social distancing while queuing. In the end, it is possible that public transport will follow schools where social distancing is not applied. Students know that it will not work, teachers know that it does not work, and the government/society cannot afford a year of children missing school. The result? A compromise!

In the same vein, many train commuters know that they do not have a choice (if they do, they will not commute by public transport and risk their health). The fear factor associated with use of public transport will remain for some time post-lockdown. Emerging evidence indicates the fear factor is real with a quarter of Toronto public users saying they will not return until there is a vaccine (Wilson, 2020). Transport authorities and operators know that platforms are not wide enough to practice social distancing, and adding more services to reduce ‘crowding’ is out of the question due to network constraints and driver shortage (O'Sullivan, 2019). Bus can be the saver of public transport capacity shortage for CBD commuters to practice social distancing; however, traffic in the CBD will be in chaos with extra buses required to transport a large number of commuters left behind by train. Many businesses cannot wait to have their employees back to the office (Olle, 2020; Wilkie & Hanrahan, 2020; Sherman, Repko, Wayland et al, 2020). Result? A compromise, you may guess.

Acknowledgements: The author thanks Professors David Hensher, Corinne Mulley, and John Nelson for insightful comments on earlier drafts. Statistics on train and platform crowding were extracted from the author’s previous work to which Transport for NSW and Sydney Trains provide necessary input.


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