a man smiling for the camera: MC Chauhan, ex GM-NCR

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MC Chauhan, ex GM-NCR

Speeding up rail expansion projects, increasing speed, construction of Metro lines faster, including cycling and walking lanes and complete digitization of the ticketing system are among the six-point solutions for post-pandemic commute in Mumbai highlighted by senior railway official who has also been a former divisional manager in Mumbai and the head of Kolkata Metro.

M.C. Chauhan, who was also the former General Manager of North Central Railway, said the Mumbai suburban railway carries 7.5 million commuters per day and is one of the busiest commuter rail system in the world. During peak hours, these trains carry 14 to 16 passengers per square metre of floor space while the recommended capacity is of four passengers per square metre.

“It is, therefore, imperative to expedite the execution of works under Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) Phase 3 and 3A, to reduce peak-hour loads in suburban trains. There is a need to develop the Regional Rapid Transit Systems (RRTS) connecting regional centres for improved mobility of commuters and to decongest the overcrowded cities. Construction or expansion of metros in million-plus cities, along with induction of electric bus fleets will lead to faster movement of masses with less crowding and reduce the pollution level,” he added.

Incorporating cycling/walking lanes in planning urban transport network is required for last-mile connectivity. The digitalisation of the public transport system in major cities will help in to improve ticketing and real-time ride information, he said.

“The COVID-19 is poised to become one of the most severe public health and economic crisis the world has faced in the 21st century. Along with the sweeping loss of human lives and labour productivity, the virus is likely to impact various sectors and general lifestyle over the long term. Most estimates show a significant contraction of the level of output in the financial year 2020-21. The coronavirus outbreak will impact individual behaviour pertaining to the way we work, consume and travel.”

Public transport (railways, metros, airlines & buses) and shared mobility services (e.g. auto-rickshaws, and Uber/Ola taxis) are vectors for distribution of the virus and will be severely affected by continued norms of social distancing.

Despite the perceived risk and reduction in uptake of public transport presently, the sector needs to be encouraged in the aftermath of the virus for efficient movement of masses and reducing carbon emission. Here, I describe the effects of COVID-19 on the transport sector post lockdown, and a long-term action plan to augment the capacity of Public Transport for growth and handling such crises in the future.

Effects of COVID-19 on Public Transport Post Lockdown:

Even as public transport services are expected to resume progressively, it is unlikely for the threat of the virus to subside so quickly. With the development of an effective vaccine still works in progress, the fear of contracting the virus along with government recommendations to exercise social distancing will affect the mode of transport people choose and how frequently they travel. On the one hand, commuters might avoid crowded modes of transport such as buses, metros and trains; and the perceived health risks might incentivise the use of personal vehicles. This would increase traffic congestion and vehicular pollution. On the other hand, the demand for transport will reduce as consumers are expected to avoid visits to shopping complexes and movie theatres, eating out; and opt instead to shop online, stream movies online and order food through delivery apps. The practice of working from home will now be a more accepted and common part of professions in the service sector, reducing daily commuters. In addition, travel outside the city or country for meetings and conferences is expected to fall, and be replaced by online meetings and video conferences.

To address the shift in commuters’ behaviour and to regain their confidence in public transport, it is essential for public transport companies to undertake measures to safeguard the safety of commuters and vehicle operators.

Plan for Coordinated Effective measures:

In anticipation of similar health risks and for the sake of improved public health and hygiene, transport departments and companies should plan for the safety of the staff and passengers by adopting the following measures.

First, staff should be equipped with protective gear such as face masks, hand sanitizers and gloves. Second, proper disinfecting procedures should be created and the staff trained on the same. The hygiene of public transport stations and vehicles should be monitored with routine inspections. Third, an anti-viral/anti-bacterial coating of all frequently touched surfaces within trains, stations, aircraft, buses and taxis should be done. Fourth, reduce human contact through digital ticketing and verification procedures in all public transport systems. Fifth, increase distance between passengers to minimise the risk of infections. Reducing occupancy of public transport vehicles is an important step in this direction. In order to help reduce congestion during peak hours, government and corporate offices should stagger their work timings, encourage virtual meetings & conferences and work from home.

These steps will help in building confidence among commuters and recovering demand for these services.

Long Term Action Plan for Future Growth and to cope with a similar crisis:

While the pandemic has severely impacted the transport sector, the government should consider investing in increasing the capacity of public transport for the following reasons. First, it would create jobs and help revive the economy and tackle unemployment in the aftermath of the virus. Second, public transport is key to improving air pollution by a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and road accidents in cities. As per the statistics published by the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways (2018), 17,709 deaths were recorded in 2018 from road accidents in million-plus cities.

Therefore, I recommend the following ways to improve the capacity of the Public Transport sector. First, augment the rail network (with speed potential of 160-200 km/h) in high-density corridors, especially on golden quadrilateral routes (which carry more than 55 percent of the total traffic of Indian Railways). This will reduce overcrowding of trains on these oversaturated routes. Second, expand the suburban railway networks in metropolitan cities, particularly in Mumbai, he added. Third, develop the Regional Rapid Transit Systems (RRTS) connecting regional centres for improved mobility of commuters and to decongest the overcrowded cities. Fourth, construction or expansion of metros in million-plus cities, along with induction of electric bus fleets that will lead to faster movement of masses with less crowding and reduce the pollution level. Fifth, incorporating cycling/walking lanes in planning urban transport network for last-mile connectivity. Sixth, digitalisation of public transport system in major cities to improve ticketing and real-time ride information.

Chauhan said, “I’ll conclude by echoing the words of Rahm Emanuel, White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. COVID-19 provides a much-needed opportunity to Railways and Public Transport companies to provide long-term oriented competitive, comfortable, reliable, sustainable and safe public transport for India’s future growth by improving safety and hygiene protocols, increasing frequency while reducing occupancy, and switching completely to e-payments and automated ticket checking.”

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