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Public Transport post-COVID-19 – A quick scan of some of the immediate challenges and those in the longer term

6 July 2020
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some critical issues inherent in the current public transport system. However, according to Professor David Hensher and Yale Wong, this is an opportune time to address these problems in order to create a more resilient and adaptable transport sector.

A significant global challenge which has emerged in early 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic, with major ramifications for the transport sector, its funding and governance. To consider the range of implications, it is necessary to distinguish between the immediate short term operational impacts from longer term strategic consequences.

In the short term, there is a huge focus on increased sanitation and distancing measure, especially during the return-to-work phase when ‘second wave’ infections might be expected. Enhanced sanitation initiatives will need to be continued, with the possible opportunity to explore how the use of technologies like ultraviolet, ozone, ioniser, nano-product and bleach robotic cleaning can make sanitation less reliant on manual labour. One of the major weaknesses is that present cleaning staff are depot-based, meaning that buses cannot be cleaned en-route. One possibility is that cleaning crew can be arranged by the authority and stationed at major interchanges, who sanitise buses from any contracted operator during extended dwells and layover time. A major question is how the financial cost of these enhanced sanitation measures will be borne, including how the additional cost burden is being shared between the authority and contracted operators.

Whilst sanitation helps to avoid the spreading of the virus via hard surfaces, better adherence to social distancing guidelines and the protection of frontline employees ensures that the virus is less likely to be spread via airborne particles. Distancing measures may be voluntary as well as physical. In the return-to-work phase, vehicles may need to be limited to 50% maximum passenger loading, with particular seats cordoned from use and standing banned. Sneeze guards can be installed to protect drivers. Active network monitoring will need to ensure the ability to ‘insert’ additional services as required to maintain these loads. One of the key issues is the impact on contracted operators where patronage incentives are a part of their revenue stream. Whilst this is minor in most urban settings (although for light and heavy rail, patronage plays a greater role), there are instances in the regions (e.g. Queensland) where operators have had to receive government support. Operators in the charter and long-distance markets who operate on a commercial basis have also struggled in the face of a severe reduction in their patronage. These realities call for urgent reform to ensure these operators survive and that their essential services (a lifeline for regional communities) can continue to be provided.

One of the major unknowns is how COVID-19 will change the nature of travel under a ‘new normal’. Remote working may continue to be prevalent amongst white collar workers, who typically exhibit nine-to-five working patterns. Employers may be asked to continue supporting risk management initiatives initially, and if there is no evidence of voluntary commitment then they may be mandated by government (e.g., to work in alternating A and B teams). Any remote work will mean a likely flattening of commuting peaks, reducing crowding and capacity pressures on the public transport system. This is very positive for maintaining physical distancing, and will also have operational impacts on future transport planning and policy. Rather than catering for the peaks exclusively, public transport systems can be better tailored to service all-day demand. This will have impacts on reducing vehicle requirements as well as the number of frontline staff required. Less travel demand will also have traffic ramifications on the road network, on which buses and coaches run.

However, the extent to which traffic congestion will ease is dependent on any possible modal shifts in travel behaviour. A likely outcome is that biosecurity becomes a new attribute in mode choice, and with private car travel perceived to be safer, it may lead to pressure on the road network and travel speeds. Governments will need to manage this through the taxation system and user-pays schemes (e.g., on CBD access and parking). Shorter trips might see a shift towards active mode like cycling and e-scooters (as has been exhibited during the lock down period). These travel behaviour shifts will place pressure on public transport authorities and operators as they seek to attract users back on to the system.

In the longer term, key questions need to be asked around how well the public transport industry is prepared to weather these ‘black swan’ events, and how the network may be called upon to perform crucial functions during periods of emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some critical realities in the bus and coach industry. The continual focus on cost efficiency has meant that there is now less capability to ‘scale up’ in times of crisis—such as to implement rigorous sanitation regimes or to run an emergency network at short notice. Authorities worldwide and the Thredbo ‘narrative’ have encouraged the build-up of very successful and ‘lean’ operators, which are a point of credit but also a source of potential policy conflict and tension going forward.

As an example, most Australian capital cities (Perth being the main exception) have maintained a full public transport service and the same schedules and rosters throughout the lockdown period. The result is far too much dwell time for trains and running time for buses, which is operationally inefficient and frustrating for customers. Operators need to be more resilient and agile in responding to these changes in demand and traffic. Future tender requirements might call for the development of pandemic management plans and reduced service offerings based on the weekend timetable with Friday/Saturday night supplements, a curtailing of all peak express routes but with the addition of route augments to service medical facilities. Driver shifts might be shortened (to better distribute work amongst the full workforce), thereby reducing the need for breaks which put drivers at risk by being out and about in the community.

COVID-19 has also brought lessons in terms of multi-agency coordination and pandemic preparedness. What is evident is that there continues to be poor operational integration between operators and modes. Individual operators have contributed buses and drivers to be used in higher risk operations, such as for quarantining international arrivals and to assist hospitals and the aged-care community. However, there is no infrastructure in place to enable efficient communication during these pooled operations (the same may be said for rail replacement services). There is a need to develop centralised control capabilities shared between operators in a city (e.g., as occurs through CentreComm in London), complete with pooled spare drivers and the capacity for immediate service insertion to aid in ensuring agile and resilient operations. There needs to be plans in place for the urgent procurement of personal protective equipment for all frontline staff, as well as education on their safe and proper use. The Six Sigma doctrine should be incorporated as part of standard operating procedures for risk management and quality control purposes.

The COVID-19 experience will also bring questions in terms of asset and infrastructure spend. In the bus and coach sector, the pandemic experience will likely affect fleet/asset procurement in the future in terms of the Australian Design Rules (ADRs) which specify vehicle design, the use of materials and requirements for driver protection. Large-scale infrastructure needs may need to be reviewed and put on hold, in light of budgetary pressures, the changing nature of work, a decline in tourism and possible reduced population growth. There may be a reprioritisation of projects towards a focus on packages of smaller investments. The next edition of Thredbo will make for interesting case studies on the issue and bring clarity as to what is required to ensure that the land passenger transport sector can be more resilient and adaptable in times of crises.