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The Covid-19 crisis presents big challenges for rail and metro operators. As well as safeguarding passenger health, operators face the huge task of rebuilding revenues and restoring public trust. Could digital technology help?

Social distancing on railways is the new normal. It’s a huge change – and it means that railways must now operate very differently compared to before the pandemic. For operators, this has meant adapting operations and redeploying staff to manage congestion and supervise passengers. On some networks, there is a need to monitor mask wearing compliance and to carry out body temperature checks as well.

Overcrowding is a major concern
The big challenge for operators is overcrowding. Even with lower passenger numbers, crowds can grow very quickly. Passengers have little control once congestion starts to build up because turning back is often impossible.

For example, a passenger might step off the escalator only to discover that the platform is already jam-packed. Or when a train arrives, the carriage is so full it’s impossible to get on. Or they get stuck in a crowd trying to leave the station because two other trains – and 500 extra passengers – arrived at the same time. All of this adds to anxiety.

These are difficult problems to manage at the best of times. But in the Covid era, they have taken on a new urgency. What can operators do?

Better data means better decisions
To solve these problems, Thales has developed a new product leveraging distributed intelligent video analytics. This is an AI-based solution that uses image-processing algorithms to measure passenger density. The same digital technology can also be used to monitor mask wearing. Passenger privacy is protected at all times.

“Transport operators can’t be everywhere, so they need an overview of where it’s crowded and where it’s not,” explains Stéphanie Joudrier, Transportation Video and Security Product Line Manager, Thales. “Our approach is to provide local, real-time information about passenger density on stations, platforms and trains, so operators can focus on the places where there is a social distancing issue.”

The beauty with Thales’ solution is that it uses existing CCTV networks, so there is no need to install extra cameras. It can be provided either as a cloud solution, or via devices fully deployed on the premises.

As well as measuring passenger density, technology developed by Thales also makes it possible to monitor passenger flows. The solution uses tap-in/tap-out data from ticketing systems to reconstruct passenger journeys.

Reconstruction is important, because it makes it possible to calculate waiting times, as well as the average number of trains that will pass before a passenger is finally able to get on. This technology also allows operators to make predictions about overcrowding. It is already being used by operators in Hong Kong and Spain.

In addition to the two solutions described above, Thales can provide customers with thermal imaging technology to monitor body temperature. This can be delivered standalone or fully integrated in the Operation Control Centre with dashboards and statistics.

Putting data into action
Thales’ data-driven solutions not only show operators what’s happening, they also help them to make interventions to prevent overcrowding and maintain social distancing.

“Real-time passenger density information has huge value,” says Joudrier. “For example, you can link it with passenger information systems and smartphone apps to guide passengers throughout their journeys. And thanks to real-time train occupancy data, we can show passengers which carriages are the least crowded before their train arrives.”

Real-time insights also allow operators to make the best use of their physical infrastructure to combat overcrowding.

“Station managers can dynamically block access to platforms,” Joudrier explains. “You can also imagine adapting train schedules and optimising the use of fixed assets, such as ventilation and escalators, to create a safe and pleasant environment for passengers.”

Thales’ powerful digital tools come with dashboards, so operators can easily visualise what’s happening across the network. Alerts are generated automatically based on operator needs. Meanwhile, statistical tools allow operators to gather data about mask-wearing compliance.

Solutions are designed to provide maximum flexibility with services delivered predominantly via opex. “Operators have changing needs, so they need to be able to activate or deactivate capabilities such as mask wearing as required,” says Joudrier.

The idea is to offer new functions as well. These include track intrusion detection, unattended luggage detection and violent event detection – even the ability to detect if there are still passengers on the train at the end of the line.

All of these solutions are designed to reduce costs and improve performance for operators. Above all, they help to create an attractive travel environment for passengers – not just during the Covid crisis, but for years to come.