Metro reopening: What are the lessons from global cities?

safety in metro during covid

Namma Metro employees demonstrate social distancing inside a coach. Photo: BMRCL

Five months after Metro services were stopped, the BMRCL (Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Ltd) resumed services this Monday, September 7. Metro has undergone many administrative and operational changes on account of COVID-19, but are these enough? What are the learnings from other cities across the globe?


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Several cities like New York, London and Hong Kong have been successfully operating their mass transit services, with a slew of safety and hygiene measures to curb COVID transmission. New York and London saw passenger numbers in subways plummet when COVID cases rocketed there in April-May. Though cases are still reported from these cities, commuter numbers have picked up reasonably well, indicating a certain level of confidence among the public.

In all three cities, no infection clusters have been tracked back to subways as well. The consensus was that public transport poses little risk of COVID transmission.

Commuter numbers plummeted in New York and London in April-May at the peak of the pandemic there, but rose again. In Hong Kong, the numbers reduced in July-August when the city started seeing more cases.

However, these cities also seem to have more well-defined sanitisation and disinfection protocols compared to Namma Metro. These protocols, along with reduced passenger numbers, have also inflicted massive financial strain on transport authorities in these cities.

BMRCL takes precautions, but no SOP for disinfection

BMRCL has taken several measures to ensure social distancing and hygiene, such as:

  • Allowing only 50 people inside the station at a time, and only 300 people in a six-coach train at a time
  • Only commuters with smart cards can ride the Metro, and cards can be recharged only through mobile apps
  • Queue at the entrance of the stations, with designated spots at 2 m distance from each other. Applying hand sanitisers at station entrance, and the use of Arogya Setu app are compulsory
  • Thermal scanning; only those without symptoms will be allowed to board the train
  • Designated positions for standing are marked in trains and in the lifts in stations. ‘Don’t be seated’ markings on alternate seats in trains
  • Trains will not stop at overcrowded stations

Though BMRCL officials say their housekeeping staff have been trained to sanitise Metro coaches and stations at regular intervals, they had not decided when or at what frequency this would be done, as we explained in a recent article. The corporation said it was deploying its own staff for the job, and had not calculated the additional cost involved in sanitising the coaches.

Indiranagar Metro station after services resumed. Very few are using the Metro since its reopening. Pic: Pragathi R

In contrast, New York, Hong Kong and London have taken measures like disinfection at specified timings, running more services, and replacing air filters inside trains, in addition to the usual precautions like setting up hand sanitisation kiosks.

Protocols in other cities

New York

When New York emerged as a COVID hotspot in early May, the city’s Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) undertook extensive safety measures. MTA, which runs bus, subway and rail transit in New York, is the largest transit system in the US. The subway system, which used to run 24 hours a day, shut down operations between 1 am and 5 am everyday for disinfection. The train’s air filters were replaced every one-and-half days, as against three days previously.

MTA also suggested commuters to carry single-use gloves. Additional police and staff were deployed to ensure wearing of masks. Commuters were advised to avoid travelling amid peak hours. Reports as late as in August suggest that MTA’s system has been effective – no infection clusters have been traced back to the subway system.

Hong Kong

Compared to many cities globally, Hong Kong has had relatively fewer COVID cases. However, the government, which owns a majority stake in the city’s Mass Transit Railway, cut down the number of routes when ridership plummeted with COVID.

They also rolled out a robot to disinfect the carriages, with an enhanced spraying system that could reach nooks the human hand couldn’t. The stations were disinfected every two hours, including the escalators, lifts and ticketing systems. The frequency of replacing air filters was increased.

London

The transport authority TFL (Transport for London) ran more trains to beat the rush-hour crowd. The government instructed commuters to stay at a minimum distance of 1 m from people who weren’t part of their household, and to use different entry points/doors while boarding the train.

In August, TFL also conducted surface-sampling on ticket machines and handrails from three different stations, all of which tested negative for COVID. This emboldened commuters to take their chances in the subway system.

Lessons for commuters 

The successful operations of transport systems abroad also relied heavily on the adherence of commuters to personal and social hygiene norms. Following are some pointers for commuters in Bengaluru.

  • Reduce the number of changes. Passengers who have a long journey on the train and have to make multiple changes, are exposed to more shared surfaces and people.
  • Sanitise phones, headphones and bag straps after alighting from trains.
  • Limit contact with poles or handrails. Considering this is almost unavoidable in a moving vehicle, use gloves or napkins to touch the poles, and dispose them later.
  • Passengers can hold the subway poles with the crook their arm to avoid contact with hands, unless they are wearing gloves. 

Can Bengaluru do more?

Vasant Sundaram, who used to commute regularly for work from Rashtriya Vidyalaya to Malleshwaram, is not keen on boarding the Metro rightaway. He says he wants to see how BMRCL will overcome initial teething problems. Given that trains may not stop at crowded stations, he also voiced doubts about being compelled to disembark further from his destination.

However, Sudeept Maiti, Senior Manager for Urban Transport at the non-profit World Resources Institute, says public transport is essential. “Not everyone can afford vehicles of their own, nor will that be a sustainable solution,” he says.

Sudeept emphasises the need to ensure social distancing between passengers while they board the Metro, wait for lifts/escalators, etc. While some of this can be enabled by the BMRCL, much of this will need to be self-implemented by commuters, he opines. He lauded BMRCL’s decision to go contactless when it came to payments, but said more could be done.

Inside trains, alternate seats have to be left vacant. But social distancing should be ensured while boarding trains and while waiting for lifts/escalators too, says Sudeept. Photo: BMRCL

“By analysing previous data from ticket sales, BMRCL could devise a method to estimate how many passengers get off at each station”. This can be used to regulate the number of people coming in, to prevent overcrowding or going past the prescribed capacity a station can sustain amid COVID-19. Since the air conditioning increases transmission risk, Sudeept says air filters inside trains should be changed frequently as well.

Bhumika Nanda, public health specialist at the non-profit Swasti, feels the measures are a tad inadequate and are not implemented as fiercely as required. She says passengers must consider every external surface as a carrier of the virus, and sanitise accordingly. And that authorities should make a blanket assumption that everyone is an asymptomatic COVID carrier, and impose more stringent regulations.

To enable contact tracing in case of infections, Bhumika proposes tech-based solutions in the form of a real-time monitoring app akin to Aarogya Setu. BMRCL can use this app to monitor crowd, enlist personal details and add an extra layer of surveillance. This will bring in accountability and leave no space for mismanagement, she suggests.

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About Pragathi R 8 Articles
Pragathi R is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer with a keen interest in mobility, governance and gender.

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