The outbreak of the Corona virus has become a reality with over 181,000 infections in 162 countries (status 16/03/2020). The WHO declared nCoV as a global pandemic. With Europe being the new epicenter of the disease with Italy and Spain being the most affected, public life is getting close to „standby“ in many European cities.
What is the appropriate reaction for public transport operators and passengers? Is it still safe to use public transport? UITP, the international organisation for public transport authorities and operators, policy decision-makers, scientific institutes and the public transport supply, published guidelines in the framework of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. They aim to assist public transport operators in tailoring business continuity plans responding to the specific challenges of communicable diseases.
Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
Symptoms and prevention
Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing.
According to the WHO, the new coronavirus is a respiratory virus, which spreads primarily through contact with an infected person through respiratory droplets generated by coughing or sneezing, which can be inhaled or contaminate hands and surfaces. It is still unknown how the virus can survive on surfaces, but preliminary information suggests that it may last a few hours or more. Public transport systems have to be considered a high-risk environment due to:
- high number of people in a confined space with limited ventilation
- no access control to identify potentially sick persons
- a variety of common surfaces to touch (ticket machines, handrails, door knobs, etc.)
While public transport has practically stopped in the critical zones in Italy and Spain, operation is still continued in most parts of the European Union for the time bing. Consequently, it is important for operators to focus to implement pandemic action plans, train their staff and trying to protect staff and passengers.
Recommendations and preparedness
According to the UITP, the most important recommendation is to follow the guidance of the competent authorities at all times and to scale up measures according to the risk level. The recommendations on preparedness are suitable for all public transport networks, regardless of the level of threat currently faced.
UITP is highlighting that pandemic planning is not a stand-alone project, but needs to be integrated with existing crisis management structures and procedures in order to be effective. It is crucial to involve business units directly into this planning, as they know best themselves, which are critical supplies, personnel or functions. It is advisable to involve unions into the planning and decision-making process at a very early stage; their true involvement can help to achieve an understanding and support for less popular measures.
It is crucial to have identified essential functions within the organisation and provide separate facilities for them if needed. It is advisable to develop an inventory of staff qualifications, licenses, etc. in order to identify employees, who could act as back up for critical positions. As many professional licenses are expiring without regular practice or re-examination, it is also important to check their validity and renew them if needed.
Also reviewing the stock and availability of essential protection and cleaning equipment and supplies and planning their distribution and refilling can be crucial. Reviewing stock and supply chains for operational material, such as fuel, lubricants or spare parts and investigate alternative suppliers can be useful.
In order to prepare the operation in the best manner, staff information is a key element of communication planning and reassurance. Corona is a major disease outbreak which is already a key topic within media and public discussion. In order to keep passengers and stakeholders informed, a basic “questions and answers” (FAQ) section for the internal and external websites providing basic information about the outbreak, its impact on the public transport systems and measures being taken is recommended.
Protection of the personal and passengers
Given the multitude of contact between the personal of public transport operators and the public, protection measures are suitable for all public transport networks regardless of the risk level in the respective city or region. UITP is recommending the increase of personal protection and hygiene measures to reassure both staff and passengers even if the risk is considered very low.
As a general measure, staff should be reminded of required basic rules of personal hygiene, which includes to regularly wash hands, to sneeze and cough into the elbow and to use paper towels. Information bulletins are widely available and should be displayed throughout the premises. Staff wash and dressing rooms, meeting rooms and offices should be equipped with hand disinfectants and paper tissues;
The effect of respiratory masks is debated. Public transport operators should obtain local and/or national advice on the use of masks and recommended types of masks. General advice of the WHO is to wear masks when tending to an infected or potentially infected person;
Further UITP recommendations consist in cleaning routines which may have to be adapted and increased focus should be put on disinfecting common surfaces and spots to touch as well as waste disposal. For working places, where no cleaning may be possible between shifts, employees should be equipped with the necessary means and be made responsible to remove any waste and disinfect surfaces before taking over as part of the routine.
Staff that has to take care sick travellers, clean body fluids or potentially contaminated items and surfaces, should wear disposable gloves.
Reduction of contact
Reduction of contact measures are recommended if the risk level is high, for example confirmed outbreak in the area or a decision by the competent authorities. Whilst hard to realise in the operational environment, the following options could be considered to reduce the exposure of public transport staff:
- Customer service staff should only be available in information booths or desks with sufficient distance to passengers;
- Rear door boarding may temporarily replace the front door access of buses, in order to protect drivers that have no separate cabins;
- The need for ticket inspection during an outbreak should be challenged. Ticket inspectors would be exposed to a very high risk of getting infected, whilst they may be valuable back-up staff for other critical positions;
- Remote working should be considered for activities that could be carried out without physically being present in company premises. The stimulation of home working might further contribute to reducing contact and might allow working for employees, who have to take care of relatives at home but are not sick;
- Replacing meetings by telephone conferences should reduce contact between employees, the closing of canteens may be considered.
Reduction of service
Reduced service measures may be required if the risk level is high, for example a confirmed outbreak in the area or a decision by the competent authorities. If staff availability becomes too low to sustain regular operation, service should be reduced throughout the network as a pandemic is expected to affect a region without focus. It should be noted that such reduction of service will likely correspond with a reduced travel demand due to closing of schools and general advise to stay at home if possible. Operators have good experiences with the adoption of the weekend timetable as passengers are used to it and necessary announcements are already prepared, thus the service amendment might cause the minimal confusion;
Maintenance routines for equipment and rolling stock should be reviewed in order to identify the potential for advancing or delaying inspections. Operators should seek contact with local authorities to align crisis plans as an epidemic might lead to limited availabilities on their side.
Public transport is a backbone of local and national economy and an essential service to be maintained as long as reasonable. The COVID-19 outbreak is close to getting a pandemic, but as we see cases confirmed in a growing number of countries, the situation in any region can change rapidly.
Preparedness is thus the most helpful measure at this stage in most places. Examples of ways to be prepared as well as references to useful web- sites and documents have been collected by UITP Secretariat to support its members in this process. It is important to follow the information given by WHO, staying in close contact with the national health organisations and authorities and following their guidelines.
Further information from UITP about the topic is available here:
Members of the German VDV have access to further background information here:
Source: UITP/ UTM research17.03.2020