UKRI funds COVID-19 project on spread and control on public transport

A project has been launched to understand the risk of COVID-19 transmission on public transport and identify the best measures to control it.

A team led by the University of Leeds, with the Department for Transport, has received £1.7 million in funding from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) rolling COVID-19 call, through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The researchers will develop detailed simulations of the way the virus could potentially spread through airflow:

  • from touching contaminated surfaces
  • from being close to someone infected with the virus.

The study will create models that will quantify the level of risk faced by passengers and transport staff. This will help government and transport operators decide if additional mitigation measures are needed, particularly when passenger numbers begin to return to the levels seen prior to the pandemic.

Known as the Transport Risk Assessment for COVID Knowledge (TRACK) project, the study will conduct fieldwork on buses and trains in London, Leeds and Newcastle, including the light-rail system in Tyne and Wear.

Professor Phil Blythe, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Transport, said:

The transport industry has been doing a brilliant job keeping public transport COVID-secure for its workers and passengers throughout the pandemic.

We need to deepen our understanding of COVID-19 transmission in public transport and keep applying the latest science to our work across the network to reduce transmission – studies like this one will help do just that.

Evidence gained from TRACK will help inform policy decisions and the development of effective and well-informed control strategies. This scientific study, involving some of the country’s leading experts, will be useful not just for transport but also to other sectors in the fight against COVID-19.

Project lead Professor Cath Noakes said:

Scientists are unclear how much the virus spreads in the enclosed space of a train or bus, and whether it is from particles in the air or from touching contaminated surfaces or by being near an infected person.

This research will plug a knowledge gap. It will allow transport operators to identify the most important risks and devise ways they can further reduce the risks of passengers getting COVID-19.

TRACK will analyse the movement and behaviour of people as they pass through transport systems:

  • where they sit or stand
  • what surfaces they touch
  • how close they may be to other travellers and for how long.

The researchers hope to measure the effectiveness of new interventions such as anti-viral coatings on high-touch surfaces, ultraviolet air-disinfection units on buses and trains, and cleaning compounds.

Dr Kedar Pandya, Director for Cross-Council Programmes, EPSRC, said:

This project demonstrates the importance of collaborative multidisciplinary research, using information and communications technology and artificial intelligence to further the understanding on how COVID-19 spreads and how to enhance passenger safety on public transport.

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