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“World first” use of data for COVID-safe commuting

The NSW Government claim their use of data to track COVID-19 safety on trains and notify commuters is "world first". Photo: Allison Hore


To make physical distancing on public transport easier during the busy summer period, the NSW government is trialling new app features to track how full train carriages are and warn regular commuters if their train is crowded.

The feature, which Transport Minister Andrew Constance says is “world first”, measures how full train carriages are by utilising real time tap-on and tap-off data and measuring the weight of each carriage. If the train looks to be crowded, regular commuters on that service will receive a push notification with details about how crowded the train is and whether physical distancing would be possible.

“This is using technology in a way that’s never been seen before in the world, we’re very proud that our team has developed this function as a part of the Opal application and it’s designed to keep people safe,” said Mr. Constance on a press conference on Tuesday morning.

“You can make an informed decision about whether to catch the next service or find another way to get to your work place or place of recreation.”

To be able to use the new feature commuters will need to have an Opal card and the Opal application, which has already had 3.4 million downloads, and opt to get notifications on load data. Commuters will also need to have travelled regularly over a 21-day period. To figure out which transport services commuters are likely to use and when, the app uses Opal data to predict people’s travel patterns on a personal level.

Mr. Constance said while the feature is tailored to be useful in the context of the pandemic, the functionality and predictive analytics behind the system was going to be rolled out anyway. He said Transport for NSW was working to deploy “every available technology to keep people safe” on public transport over the summer period, which is predicted to be busy. 

“This now joins an array of measure design to make sure that we do not see community transmission at rates which could result in a mass spread of the virus,” he said. 

The feature will first be rolled out for trains, then the metro, then light rail and buses.

Transport for NSW Chief Operations Officer Howard Collins said while the weight data and real-time Opal data couldn’t give 100 percent accurate details on the actual number of commuters, he was confident the data was effective enough to be useful.

“We might be one or two people out, but it’s pretty accurate, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s a world first,” he said.

No mask mandate, no discounts

Despite the spotlight on transport safety going into the summer months, and with some businesses aiming to return to business as usual in 2012, Mr. Constance has resisted calls to mandate commuters to wear masks. Instead, he says he “has a lot of faith in” Sydney-siders to do the right thing.

“Please put a mask on, because we don’t want to have to mandate it and put in place measures, be it fines or denying services, as a part of a mandatory measure when it comes to masks,” he said.

Mr. Constance says while there’s currently no evidence of community transmission on public transport yet, “that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened” and he urges commuters to take caution.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I was terrified that transport would be a major cause of mass outbreaks, and we haven’t seen that because everyone has worked together,” he said.

Discounted travel on public transport has also been ruled out. 

Mr. Constance says 80 percent of the service is already subsidised by the taxpayer and Transport for NSW is already down “hundred of millions of dollars” in revenue because of the pandemic.

At the moment around 1.1 million people are using public transport compared to the usual number of 2.3 million. Despite the low number of commuters, the number of services will be increased over the summer over the summer to give people more options

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