Research: COVID-19 Discussion Paper – Impacts and Implications for Global Metros

The Transport Strategy Centre (TSC) at Imperial College London has closely monitored the impacts of COVID-19 on metro operators through the Community of Metros. This COVID-19 Discussion Paper (click to review the full paper) was published to document the main impacts that metros have faced and the key strategic implications for metro operators and their authorities for the future.

The  cover page of Community of Metros COVID-19 Discussion Paper

The paper summarises the primary and immediate impacts of the COVID-19 on metros, as well as the key future implications. Due to the pandemic, most metros, including those that did not previously require operational subsidies, are unlikely to be able to cover operating costs in 2021. The ongoing evolution of the pandemic makes it clear that the recovery period will be extended well beyond 2021 and some new travel patterns are likely to stay.

Even at much lower demand metros still provide critical urban mobility, and it is important to recognise that metros have high proportions of fixed costs and long-term impacts on economies of cities. Therefore, it is better to maximise benefits than to minimise costs. Additional government support and sustainable fares policies are critical for metros as part of a long-term strategy. Sustaining and even increasing investment programmes to modernise existing systems and build extensions would enable the best possible recovery, as well as support long-term work for generations to come.

Research: COVID-19 Microstudy on Restoring Demand

During the early stages of COVID-19, metro ridership fell rapidly as lockdowns were implemented and governments urged people to avoid public transport. As restrictions begin to lift, metros face the challenge of encouraging customers back to the metro to support recovery. The Restoring Demand During COVID-19 Microstudy reviewed the actions that metros are taking to develop customer confidence, including public messaging and communication tools.

There is a wide range of forecasts for ridership recovery. Asia/Pacific metros are most optimistic about recovery. In contrast, North American metros are typically estimating ridership levels of just 60-70% of pre-COVID levels by 2022.

Bar chart of average current and estimated future ridership by region as a percentage of pre COVID-19 levels

54% of metros have conducted new COVID-19 customer surveys to understand what they expect in order to feel confident using the metro. Typically, surveys suggest that 8-15% of customers will not return to the metro even when the pandemic is over. However, the vast majority of customers expect to return when there is a low risk of infection, when vaccines have been made widely available or when they return to work.

60% of COMET metros now have formal recovery plans in place. In the short term, metros have been reassuring customers through evidence-based and enforced policies, backed up by clear and direct communication.

Examples of the posters for promoting public transports welcoming passengers to come back to the systems

In the longer term, metros will be actively promoting and normalising metro travel, stimulating non-essential demand through marketing, fares promotions and stakeholder partnerships.

Research: COVID-19 Microstudy on Cost Optimisation

The significant impact of COVID-19 on metros has greatly increased the need for cost optimisation strategies, particularly for the short term. It is expected that metros’ financial gaps are growing larger due to demand recovering more slowly than initially thought. The Cost Optimisation During COVID-19 Microstudy reviewed how metros carry out cost optimisation within their organisations because of the pandemic.

The 2021 revenue outlook is generally lower than what was assumed earlier in the pandemic, with the growing realisation that it will likely take several years for revenues to return to the pre-pandemic levels. In response, metros set up cost reduction targets and cost optimisation measures for 2021, consisting of approaches for cost reduction and for cost avoidance.

The cost optimisation measures used by metros during COVID-19 separating into corst reduction measures and cost avoidance measures

The most effective measures reported by metros relate to service reductions and control of labour costs. Managing labour costs is a common approach given that it accounts for the majority of metros’ expenditures and metros can mostly take actions relating to labour costs by themselves.

The COVID-19 situation may present opportunities for metros to directly face and handle issues related to high labour costs and low labour productivity. As a result, metros can hopefully reset strategies relating to human resources and cost management to ensure they are well positioned to succeed after the pandemic.

Research: COMET Preventing Human Failures in Train Operations and the OCC

There are multiple reasons why metros are particularly affected by human failures, including operations and/or maintenance occurring 24-hours a day, human judgement involved in multiple safety critical situations, and the potential for unpredictable overtime. Across COMET metros, human failure caused the majority of collisions and derailments. Miscommunications and multi-tasking are considered the top two most influential factors on human failures.

The study focused on active human failures that directly lead to incidents. Active failures are categorised into errors and violations, which can be further sub-categorised by the underlying motive, intention, and/or frequency. Understanding active failure types supports greater understanding of the root causes of failure.

Figure to show categorises of active failure consisting of error and violation

The study reviewed strategies for preventing human failure including process, environment, and people-based solutions. One example for preventing human error is assessing fitness for duty among train drivers. Half of metros reported use of a checklist or declaration, with some metros use technology to address fatigue including monitoring attentiveness and encouraging sufficient rest for employees before their shift. While many of these measures are focused on train drivers, increasing automation within metros means that such measures are becoming just as important for OCC staff. Opportunity areas for metros to reduce operational risk of human failures are discussed, supported by good practices and future initiatives conducted by COMET metros.

Research: COVID-19 Microstudy on Staff Availability

The COVID-19 pandemic had significant potential to impact staff availability. The Staff Availability During COVID-19 Microstudy analysed staff availability levels and metro actions to manage them. The region with the most significant downturn and continued lower levels of availability is Latin America, where metros had experienced a deeper impact (about 20% below normal) since May 2020.

Line graph of average staff availability by region between January to August 2020

The study further looked at staff availability by role i.e. train drivers, station staff, and maintenance staff, as well as absence policies and management. Metros reported various strategies for better supporting employees and preventing absence during the pandemic. Continuing support for employees is important to ensure readiness for future increases in customer demand.

Research: COVID-19 Microstudy on Funding

The pandemic has created massive gaps in metro funding as ridership suddenly plummeted to extremely low levels. The Funding During COVID-19 Microstudy summarised the financial impacts on metros due to the pandemic. On average, the projected loss of fare revenue for 2020 was 50% across COMET metros, with American metros being most affected.

Bar chart of projected loss of fare revenue in 2020 by region, with North America metros having the greatest projeced loss

The financial outlook for 2021 is extremely uncertain and dependent on factors such as the COVID-19 situation itself, the ‘remote revolution’ (impacting not only work but also shopping and other activities), and government policies (including those relating to fares, the environment, subsidies, and other modes). To reduce the financial impact of COVID-19 metros must consider what actions they can take themselves to reduce costs, particularly relating to labour and energy, which are the two largest components of metro costs (on average 80% of annual operating costs).

As nearly all COMET metros will have a deficit in 2020/21, external support for funding needs has become critical. Fortunately, the majority of metros have received additional government funding in 2020. Metros have also benefitted from various financing packages e.g. government furlough schemes, tax reductions, or authorisation to increase debt, while a few metros are looking at alternative funding mechanisms to cover financial gaps.

Research: COVID-19 Microstudy on Service Levels

The Community of Metros launched COVID-19 microstudies on topic of immediate interest to metros during the pandemic. The Service Level During COVID-19 Microstudy reviewed the change of service levels operated by metros. Reductions in peak and off-peak train frequencies were the most common service change. On average, the lowest service operated during the pandemic was 62% of pre-COVID-19 levels, and over half of metros had returned to full service by the end of September 2020.

Line graph of average service levels during COVID-19 by region as a percentage of pre COVID-19 service

The study discussed key factors influencing decision about service levels and strategies for the future to inform service level responses going forward. COVID-19 has forced metros to flexibly adapt service levels in response to government policy, changing travel patterns, staff availability, etc. As demand uncertainty continues, flexibility remains key, requiring ongoing and thorough contingency planning work.

Research: Innovations to Optimise Overnight Maintenance

Having short overnight maintenance windows is a common challenge for metros globally. Overnight maintenance hours have reduced in 39% of COMET metros over the last five years and over half of them expected to face further pressure to increase service hours over the next five years. During overnight maintenance hours, metros typically spend less than 70% of the period on productive tasks (time-on-tools), which is normally between 2 and 3.5 hours each night.

The study reviews how metros measure performance regarding effectiveness and efficiency of overnight maintenance work, as well as barriers to overnight maintenance hours. Many metros have established procedures for identifying opportunities for innovations to address the barriers. The examples of innovations that have been used by metros to optimise different phases of overnight period include those relating to better advanced planning, changing maintenance philosophy, digitalisation of work orders, optimising staff travel and equipment deliveries, etc.

Research: Noise and Vibration

Noise and vibration are byproducts of urban rail systems, exacerbated by siting metro infrastructure near to sources of demand. This study was carried out as a follow-up to previous work that has been carried out in CoMET and Nova on the topic and examined practices to reduce and mitigate noise and vibration from 27 CoMET and Nova metros.

The research covers a number of areas including benchmarking of metro networks, benchmarking of noise and vibration levels, key issues causing noise and vibration across metros, relevant regulation, targets, and importantly initiatives to reduce and mitigate noise and vibration. The study identifies the key actions that metros can undertake during planning, design and operations, as well as proactive and reactive measures that metros can take once the system is already operating and established. The widest and likely most effective range of actions can be taken early in design and planning, but there are a number of options across operations and maintenance that can help to manage and reduce noise and vibration. The challenge is for metro operators will be to continue to mitigate, manage and reduce noise and vibration impacts alongside rising expectations for liveability in cities, regulatory requirements, and the long-term nature of infrastructure design.

Research: Real-time Information

Real-time information is rapidly becoming a baseline expectation for customers using metro systems. Metros have a wide array of operational and asset data sources, and a multitude of options to present this information to customers. This study brought together practices from 27 CoMET and Nova metros to understand how they provide accurate real-time information to customers by exploring their back-end management of data and front-end presentation of real-time information.

Data relating to train operations are most commonly available across metros, relying on signalling systems for example. Less commonly available are data to do with passenger movements (increasingly important to manage passenger flow in stations and trains). Generally, real-time information in stations becomes more focused on train running the closer the passenger gets to the train, to ensure that customers receive the most relevant information they need to support their journey. Metros are also recognising that digital/remote availability of real-time information is also increasingly important to customers, but so far these are not a substitute for good quality real-time information in stations and trains.

Multimodal operators have an additional opportunity to integrate their real-time information across modes, but integration with other modes and through third party interfaces is an opportunity to present real-time information seamlessly to the customer. Lastly, the study explored the innovations and trends that metros are investing in to improve their real-time information to customers, including greater personalisation and targeting of information and greater accuracy of data.