Dear stumbling block,
I hesitated to take a train during the pandemic because of safety concerns. I live in Philadelphia which means that by the time I boarded the train, the train has already picked up new passengers at several other stops. What are rail companies like Amtrak doing to prepare for Covid-19 and what can passengers do to stay healthy while traveling? Ann
Although recent studies from Europe and Asia suggest that public transport is not a primary source of virus transmission, I understand where they are coming from. Trains – closed, sometimes crowded rooms with strangers – feel more worrying than cars these days.
To answer the first part of your question, to keep employees and passengers safe, and to build consumer confidence during a drop in passenger traffic, railroad companies, both regional systems and Amtrak, are making massive coronavirus efforts.
“When the pandemic hit, Amtrak, like all transportation companies, was particularly hard hit,” said Steven Predmore, Amtrak’s executive vice president and chief safety officer, in an emailed statement. “We immediately took steps to protect the health and safety of our customers and employees and to reduce capacity,” he added.
This “immediate action” by Amtrak and other train companies generally combines mandatory masks, socially distant rules and signage, take-away-only meals, and improved air filtration. It also includes some form of enhanced cleaning – usually a morning or evening deep clean, coupled with regular cleaning of bathrooms and other high-contact areas on trains and stations.
But you’re right: transit companies don’t thoroughly disinfect every train at every station, nor do they disinfect every seat or surface before every new driver gets on board.
Any expectation to the contrary would be unrealistic, said Tanjala Purnell, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s like the supermarket: even when the best efforts are made to clean, we are already doing damage to the hard work as soon as we walk in,” she said. “We can’t think, ‘You said it was clean and spotless and here I am.'”
However, Amtrak is limiting passenger capacity to approximately 50 percent (a percentage that varies depending on the number and size of the groups traveling together) and has expanded cars and routes with reserved seats (now available in both Acela Business Class and Business Class) 1st class on the Vermonter and Palmetto routes). The company also publicly encourages drivers to do what most regulars have been “sneaking” for eons anyway: put their bags on the empty seat next to them to keep the space clear. That summer, the company advertised its private rooms, which were found in sleeping cars on some routes, through two-for-one deals.
“Our number one priority is the safety of our employees and customers. We’re leading the way in delivering a new standard of travel,” said Predmore. “We have studied, analyzed and made improvements to offer a safe travel experience.”
Amtrak has also partnered with health experts from George Washington University and germicidal experts and microbiologists from RB, Lysol’s parent company, to improve cleaning and disinfection protocols.
At certain stations in and around Philadelphia, SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) has hired volunteers as “Social Distancing Coaches” who hand out free masks to drivers who do not have these.
Further developments have taken place in the technology area. Amtrak just added a “capacity indicator” to its website and app, which allows customers to see in real time how full the trains are. These numbers, expressed as percentages, dynamically adjust as tickets are sold.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority, which operates subways, buses and commuter rails in and around New York City, has added a data volume function to TrainTime, an app that tracks real-time service status for the Metro-North Rail Road. Drivers can now see which trains are likely to be most (and least) crowded based on the mean passenger numbers for the last seven journeys. According to a spokeswoman, the agency spent $ 231.9 million on Covid-19 measures as of mid-September.
That brings us to the second part of your question: what can a nervous driver do?
Travelers with an average level of risk tolerance who are not harmed from a health perspective can take a few simple steps on trains, said Dr. Purnell.
“The key is to prepare to use the same practices and protocols that you would use even if you didn’t know about Amtrak’s new advanced security measures,” she said.
She said this means wearing face masks, wiping armrests and other surfaces with disinfectant wipes, and washing hands (or using disinfectant) regularly while traveling.
Dr. Purnell also recommended using contactless ticketing and check-in when available (like the Amtrak app and the MTA’s eTix app), staying outside if possible (some platforms can be reached without entering the train station) and avoiding others when boarding and traveling outside rush hour. (Off-peak tariffs apply to all trains on the Northern Metro and Long Island Rail Road anyway.)
“Even without Covid, these are usually the times that are easier to cope with anyway,” she said. “If you have flexibility, now they are an even stronger option.”
Seat: “There is no perfect solution,” said Dr. Purnell. Crew and passengers will come and go, and you’re guaranteed to be within six feet of anyone outside of your “quarantine team” in many places during the journey.
But depending on how the car is configured, some end up feeling most comfortable when they don’t have a bathroom. This way, no one who needs the bathroom will have to pass you to get there. And if you’re particularly concerned about people brushing against you as you cross the hallway, head to the window seat.
“Let us also keep in mind that the train operators also run the risk that our transport runs efficiently,” said Dr. Purnell. “So when we think about doing these things, it’s not just about protecting ourselves, it’s also about protecting them.”
Sarah Firshein is a Brooklyn based writer. If you need advice on an optimal itinerary that went wrong, Send an email to [email protected].