Research: COVID-19 Update on Recovery

This express study compiled the latest information from 28 metros regarding their ongoing management of and recovery from the pandemic. This study aimed to understand new policies and practices regarding staff vaccination and testing, assess the impact of recent COVID-19 outbreaks on staff availability, update demand, revenue and cost forecasts for 2022 and share new cost reduction and revenue maximisation initiatives. Key findings included:

  • About a third of metros require some or all staff to conduct COVID testing for work, but most metros encourage regular testing using wider government or public health facilities.
  • Vaccine mandates for metro staff are not yet common with three metros reporting them in place. Metro staff typically have higher vaccination rates than the general public, with a few exceptions.
  • Frontline staff availability continues to remain lower than pre-pandemic, with station staff and train drivers particularly affected.
  • Ridership forecasts are generally being revised downwards from previous estimates as the length and severity of the pandemic continues to cause uncertainty.

COMET has been undertaking a number of short, targeted studies and workshops compiling the latest COVID response and recovery at metros. Other examples include Accommodating Returning Demand, Cost Optimisation, Staff Availability, and supporting the wider Transport Strategy Centre’s multimodal benchmarking review of recent activities.

Research: COVID-19 Accommodating Returning Demand

Metro demand has varied dramatically during the course of the pandemic, and is influenced by a wide range of societal and political factors as much as individual passenger behaviour. However, as cities, regions and countries recover from the most immediate impacts of the pandemic, metros are considering how to accommodate a safe and confident regrowth in demand from its lowest level. There are also new opportunities to respond to changing customer travel patterns and preferences, despite the ongoing challenges presented by COVID-19. This study brought together information from 33 COMET metros to understand:

  • How metros plan to manage crowding particularly while the spread of COVID-19 is still a concern (including ongoing COVID-19 policies and event management) metros expect that customer attitudes to personal space will change even without formal social distancing requirements. Operational management (i.e. service and staff response in stations, at platforms and trains) will be important as well as supporting customers to choose their travel times.
  • What metros are doing to influence and encourage demand – metros are implementing or considering customer information tools, and fare changes and promotions to attract/reattract/influence customers.
  • Metros’ future service plans – metros are ensuring flexibility is built into service plans to allow for changes in customer demand, for example service frequencies and peak/off-peak adjustments.
Examples of customer information tools developed during the pandemic

Research: Cleaning Efficiency and Practices

Cleaning has long been an integral part of metro operations, with a focus on manual and resource-intensive methods and following health and safety regulations. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, cleanliness of public transport quickly took on greater prominence, gaining significant political and public interest and becoming a key area for testing and innovation.

Benchmarking of metro cleaning practices offers significant scope for efficiency. Even before COVID-19, cleaning made up almost 5% of an average metro’s operating costs, and as metros begin to recover from the pandemic and attempt to maintain enhanced cleaning standards under constrained budgets, it is essential that metros manage these costs and maximise effectiveness as far as possible.

Factors preventing more effective and efficient cleaning at metros

This study brought together information from 30 metros to explore cleaning trends leading up to the pandemic, including benchmarking on contracts, cleaning hours, and cleaning costs. The study also examined how practices, frequencies and staffing have changed as metros manage COVID-19. Lastly, the study included examples of new techniques, products and practices that have been implemented and found to improve cleanliness outcomes during COVID-19.

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.

Community of Metros News: Community of Metros CEO/COO Sessions

Following a ten-year tradition of including a CEO/COO Day as part of the Annual Meeting, this year’s sessions were held virtually due to COVID-19. All 41 member organisations joined the COMET CEO/COO Sessions on 25th March 2021. Metro executives discussed shared challenges and issues of strategic importance for metros with global peers during the two sessions for Eastern and Western time zones.

World map showing members of Community of Metros

Highlights of pre-COVID metro KPI performance and future implications were presented, along with two thematic discussions on Future Demand and Improving Resilience. Metro executives also heard highlight presentations from Hong Kong MTR and Berlin BVG sharing their perspectives and good practices in preparing for the new normal.

During the open discussion, metro executives exchanged experiences on key issues such as working with other stakeholders on policies supporting metros, opportunities to increase financial resiliency, competition between other public transport modes, etc.

Research: COVID-19 Study 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: 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.