Post-Covid transport recast

Foot-operated lavatory doors and flush valves and a host of other non-touch, health safety features are part of a coach developed by the Indian Railways for post-Covid travel. While this is just a prototype created by the Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala, and could take ages to be replicated across the entire railway network, these measures are important and must be worked on before normal travel resumes. But the question is, when will normal transport services resume?

It has been more than a month since the Covid-induced national lockdown was rolled back, though some states have either continued or resumed the shutdown but metro services continue to remain shut even as both airlines and the Indian Railways have started limited operations. Many countries have already started their train, airline and metro services, many others did not shut them in the first place.

Since March, the International Union of Railways or UIC has been publishing best practices to be followed for rail services. The idea is to have “RAILsilient” organisations during lockdown and even post-lockdown. In its June report on Transport Back on Track, the global organisation of railways even carried out survey results among 38 of its members. It showed that members would not only continue to implement measures such as increased cleaning and disinfection even after lockdown is lifted, but additional measures that authorities require them to implement, like passengers wearing masks, are also being adopted.

The UIC in its advisory had outlined some 10 measures like temperature checks, questionnaires or health declaration, etc, to be followed during and after the lockdown period. The main difficulty foreseen by respondents is maintaining social distance while meeting passenger demand for rail travel. The report lists out railway networks that are using technology to enforce social distancing. JR East (Japan), for instance, has an application that shows the level of congestion in each coach prior to arrival. This helps in the distribution of passengers in the train and also at the platform. DSB (Denmark) has a web application through which customers can be informed in real time about the capacity of all trains. Similarly, RENFE (Spain) is also developing an app that gives information on on-board space saturation.

Another interesting finding is that 76 per cent of respondents intended to give questionnaires to passengers regarding their health status. The notable exceptions, according to the report, are China Railways and the Indian Railways, both of which use smartphone apps co-created with the government to implement this measure. Two-thirds of the respondents said they were not considering implementing even simple measures like temperature checks because of four main reasons — the unproven effectiveness, the risk of creating bottlenecks, privacy issues and high costs.

Similarly, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) had formed the Council’s Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) to provide “practical, aligned guidance” to governments and industry operators to restart the international air transport sector and recover from the impact of Covid-19 on “a coordinated global basis”. The ICAO recognises that the resumption of passenger air travel in large numbers would be dependent on factors like public health agency guidelines, travel restrictions, passenger confidence and air carrier and airport operational capacity. So, it slotted operations into five stages from zero to four.

Safety measures during these stages are more or less the same as prescribed by the UIC except that they have been put into buckets of what needs to be followed at the airport, by the crew and while in flight. Interestingly, the last or the fourth stage of travel operations is when specific and effective pharmaceutical interventions are readily available in most countries. At this stage, the ICAO suggests, a set of residual measures could be retained, although periodic review could be undertaken.

It is not really known whether or when the fourth stage will come or whether there will be any real “post-Covid” times, after all. But assuming these days are to come, what will be the scale of operations? Will it be the same as earlier or will it be viable for transport services to function? For instance, in the case of India, the Railways could also completely redraw its train services. If it ever wanted to shut some trains, this could be the beginning of that end. Don’t start those operations and no one will question why was it shut. Similarly, flight services could be rationalised even though the number of operators could remain the same.

The shutting down of transport services was not so complex as their reopening is turning out to be; yet organisations could surely be using this opportunity to redraw their plans. It is here that consumers will need to be protected by regulators and the government so that the connectivity lifeline is not snapped forever — for some.


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