Travelling safely on public transport in Covid-19 era | Daily News

Travelling safely on public transport in Covid-19 era

The country is opening up today after a lockdown of about 50 days owing to the Coronavirus pandemic with safe travel, avoiding crowding seen critical to ensuring the virus does not spread.

The Government rail and bus services are ready with a new reservation system and crew training but extra efforts are needed to ensure cleanliness and public discipline to maintain physical distancing rules to prevent the virus spreading, health and transport experts told an online forum.

The government already has issued guidelines on restarting businesses and office work and preparedness. However, to customize the public transportation system and adapt to the ‘new normal’ is not an easy task, given the nature of the pandemic, the experts stressed during webinar on public transport on Saturday.

More than four billion people around the world were in some form of lockdown over the last couple of months and many countries are now in the process of relaxing lockdown regulations and reopening businesses.

Covid-19 is here to stay for a while, the health and transport industry experts say, as nobody knows for how long we will have to grapple with this new virus threat in the absence of proper vaccine or medicine to control the infection and cure the affected. What is important now is to think of ways and implement rules to manage the situation while gradually resuming normal economic and other activities from May 11.

The webinar on ‘Public Transport Preparedness under Covid-19’ was arranged by the Sri Lanka Society for Transport & Logistics (SLSTL) with health and transport industry experts. Dr. D.S. Jayaweera, Co-Secretary, Presidential Task Force on Economic Revival and Poverty Alleviation and Engineer Dr. T. Sivakumar, President of SLSTL and Senior Lecturer, University of Moratuwa moderated the webinar. Dr. Niles Perera, Senior Lecturer, Department of Transport and Logistics Management of the Moratuwa University made the introduction.

Dr. Samantha Ananda, Assistant Secretary, Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) said transport is a very important segment to look at as we resume normal activity after the prolonged stay at home.

No crowding

“First we curtailed all kinds of transport from air travel to other modes to control the spread of the virus. Now when we open up transport has once again become an area of consideration,” he said. “We have to ensure there is no crowding in our office spaces and in our buses and trains which can be done by ensuring that only 50% of the public transport is actually occupied.”

This can be done with detailed ‘policy level’ health and economy plans complementing each other and considering the demands of each sector.

Also these two sectors should collaborate with the other institutions such as the police, three armed forces and local government bodies for smooth operation of the new way of travel and work.

“It has to be an interconnected program and educating the general public on the issues, health guidelines and regulations is paramount and should be done on a daily basis. Everything depends on our behavior,” Dr. Ananda said.

“We need to focus on controlling the spread of the virus – short- and long-term plans are necessary. Transport is about both people and services. We need a proper strategy and a ‘balcony view’ monitoring and evaluation system for identifying issues and find solutions for weaker areas.”

Maintaining cleanliness

Dr. Shirani Chandrasiri, President, Sri Lanka College of Microbiologists, said one of the key areas of concern from a health perspective is maintaining cleanliness in buses and trains and any other public transport systems.

“Although the bus drivers and assistants have a habit of cleaning the bus at the end of the day, the new normal requires them to clean the bus thoroughly several times a day and clean the surfaces that people touch most of the time with sanitizers every time passengers disembark.

“And they also have to maintain other rules such as keeping distance between passengers, ensure all passengers wear masks and maintain discipline. The drivers and bus conductors should also wear masks all the time and they have also been asked to wear gloves. Even if they wear gloves or not, washing hands with soap or sanitizer several times is necessary. The Health Ministry has issued guidelines on this.”

‘New normal’

Professor Amal Kumarage, Senior Professor, Dept of Transport and Logistics Management of the University of Moratuwa and a former chairman of the National Transport Commission said that during the lockdown, people learnt to stay safe at home while the offices were getting ready with safety measures. So more public awareness initiatives are needed to make people ready for the ‘new normal’ situation.

“The challenge now is to see how we could go out, use public transport safely. Other countries are doing a lot of awareness before opening the public transport sector. We need to do that first. We need a new culture in the public transport system - the queue, only seats, how to pay.”

The transport sector will have to bear an extra cost for maintaining and ensuring health regulations during the Covid19 era. This is a major concern as the ‘new normal ’situation would allow only 20 passengers per bus journey. So there will an economic loss for transport service providers and many bus owners will find it difficult to operate buses under these circumstances.

Railway app

Engineer Dilantha Fernando, General Manager, Sri Lanka Railways, said the railway service is ready with numerous safety measures. “We have 12,500 employees, out of 20,000 employees, already working with the Covid-19 situation.”

The railway has launched a new system which can be downloaded by companies and employers to provide the information on their staff members who are using railways. “So that we can reserve their seats and inform the employee their seat number by SMS. Those with an SMS message can use the railway transport initially.”

SLTB readiness

Kingsley Ranawaka, chairman, Sri Lanka Transport Board, said there are not enough masks for their employees at present and stocks are expected by early this week.

“We deployed 600 buses to transport health sector employees over the last couple of months. Therefore, our drivers and assistants are fully aware of the health guidelines. They already have a good understanding of the issue. We plan to operate 1,500 buses initially.”

Professor Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo and former General Manager, Railways pointed out with the current situation as the public transport sector gets more activated, their costs will go up, and the revenue will come down. “This is an economically difficult situation and we need to have a strategy for that. The railways and the SLTB buses, the government may support; but what about the private buses? Who is bearing the cost?”.

At present he said, they can only take 20 passengers in a bus which is economically disadvantageous, compared with the around 50 passengers carried in normal times that ensures a profit.

Other panelists argued that in such a situation, the private buses may not be able to operate immediately.

The medical experts ruled out the possibility of carrying 50 bus passengers at a time, as physical distancing guidelines should be strictly observed to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading.

However, the number of people using public transport could be less than usual because of the staggered working hours with will initially be in place and only essential staff told to come to work.

Professor Gunaruwan also suggested it would be the time to introduce cycle lanes for individuals to encourage people to cycle to their offices and also to encourage walking to offices.

Namali Siyambalapitiya, Director Planning, Road Development Authority, said that creating cycle lanes and allowing people to walk to work could be made possible, with the measures expected to be discussed soon.

IT introduction

Talking about the IT aspects in the transport sector, Professor Asoka Perera of the Moratuwa University said there’s an opportunity to introduce IT to the public transport sector taking the advantage of the situation.

However, we need to understand what technologies we need and what we can use given the reality that not everyone can afford smartphones or are technologically savvy, he added.


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