by ALEC SMART
On 8 May the Australian Government announced a three-stage strategy to ease the restrictions introduced on 22 March to halt the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The emergency measures, which saw the country enter a near-total ‘lockdown’ on March 30, are being repealed and ‘stage three’ – where society returns to a relaxed, albeit vigilant ‘normal’ – is expected by July 2020.
People are currently allowed up to five visitors in their homes or socialise in groups of up to 10 outdoors. However, health professionals believe the possibility of a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus infections is possible, with hospitals on standby and state authorities ready to tighten restrictions again.
Two countries praised for their early implementation of social distancing laws to successfully contain the virus, Singapore and Japan, experienced a fresh wave of outbreaks when their respective lockdowns were relaxed.
Some countries have since opted for the compulsory wearing of masks by its citizens as their restrictions are eased, but Australia is gambling that ‘physical distancing’ will be more effective.
However, when it comes to commuting, physical distancing has severe drawbacks when applied to public transport, where state-sanctioned limits on passenger numbers will be enforced.
On Monday 25 May all school-aged children will return to full time education in public schools across NSW. Simultaneously, large sections of the work force are also expected to emerge from home-based social isolation and return to their freshly sanitized offices.
And yet the logistics of getting to and from places of education and employment via public transport border on impossible, due to passenger limitations, with long queues and lengthy delays expected.
New physical distancing measures, announced by the NSW Govt on 18 May, restrict buses to a maximum of 12 passengers, trains to 32 people per carriage, and the four large ‘Freshwater class’ harbour ferries will be limited to 245 passengers each.
These limits mean that, for the foreseeable future, buses will run at 14 per cent capacity, trains at 24 per cent capacity and ferries at 22 per cent.
The new COVID-19 restrictions also mean articulated (2-part ‘bendy’) buses that usually carry 115 passengers will be limited to 11.
The largest trains operating in Sydney are the two-decked ‘Waratahs’. Their eight-car trains have a maximum seating capacity of around 900 (112 persons per carriage, downstairs and upstairs) and, according to Sydney Trains, a total ‘reliable capacity’ of 1,210 seated and standing. (source: ABC News Factfile).
With the new limits they’re reduced to a maximum of 256 people across all eight cars. The track networks won’t allow for more trains because of the risk of collisions, so, with existing train services running at quarter capacity, rush-hour will see a fourfold increase in human congestion at bus, ferry and train stations.
According to Infrastructure Australia, “In 2017, Sydney’s one-hour peak passenger rail demand was approximately 190,000, after growing an average of 3.5% per year from 2006 to 2016.”
This statistic suggests, as full employment returns, an estimated 210,657 passengers are expected to be commuting around Sydney on trains during peak hour every working day. And yet the carriages will be three-quarters empty, as per physical distancing laws that don’t require the wearing of medical masks.
At the NSW Govt’s 18 May press conference, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, “We recommend people who aren’t already on the system in the peak, especially on buses and trains, to travel in the off-peak, so after 10am or before 2pm.”
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance then suggested people “walk, ride your bike, or drive instead.”
This neglects the fact that a large proportion of those using public transport will be children, who are not necessarily able to ‘ride their bikes’, especially in Winter rain or because of their young age. And given that most public schools start at 9am and finish between 3pm and 4pm, the majority of those queuing for public transport at peak periods will be the same young commuters travelling to and from their schools.
Constance conceded that Sydney city’s public transport system will only be able to carry 550,000-600,000 commuters in comparison to its usual 2.2 million.
The State Transit Authority (STA) criticised the NSW Govt instructions to public transport drivers to refuse passengers once their vehicles reached capacity. Rail, Tram and Bus Union division secretary, David Babineau, labelled it “shambolic” and on 17 May the STA issued what they called “clearer” advice to its drivers.
“You should advise customers when you have reached capacity under the new physical distancing guidelines but do not refuse them travel,” especially elderly, school students and those with mobility problems. “Physical distancing may not always be practical, especially in peak periods,”
A Transport for NSW spokeswoman confirmed “STA issued further advice to bus drivers to be clearer around the overall government position on physical distancing.”
Meanwhile, the NSW Govt authorised the temporary installation of six cycle lanes, comprising about 10km of bike paths around the city centre, and a ‘pop-up’ car park in Moore Park from 25 May where commuters will be encouraged to catch the new light rail service into the CBD.
At least 500,000 people work in Sydney CBD and most are expected to drive their cars to avoid the inevitable queues and delays that public transport at quarter-capacity limits will bring.