As Covid-19 continues to grip the planet in a pandemic, some workers must still ride mass transit for their commutes. To make sure passengers stay as spread out as possible, the country’s busiest commuter railroad is using a mixture of weight and infrared sensors to track where passengers are sitting, and direct new riders to empty cars.
The Long Island Rail Road’s latest iteration of its Train Time app added a feature Wednesday to tell passengers how crowded each arriving train car is.
Passengers are shown in the app roughly what percentage of seats are taken on each car. The idea is to let people know which train has the least crowding, so they can board accordingly.
Health experts have cautioned that due to the Covid-19 pandemic people should limit close contact with others by maintaining a distance of at least six feet. But that’s often difficult or impossible on buses and trains. At least 135 transit workers have died from Covid-19 nationwide.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the railroad, said it is the first North American railroad to offer capacity tracking. Singapore and Barcelona, Spain, already share it via app, according to Andrew Bata, head of North America for the International Association of Public Transport.
The agency is exploring if the technology might be possible on other parts of its system.
No hardware retrofits had to be made to the New York trains. The technology relies on either a weight or infrared sensor, depending on what was already installed on the different models of cars. The weight sensors were already being used to help the braking system determine how much force to apply, and the infrared sensors were present for passenger counting. Software had to be upgraded on some of the cars to transmit data.
On the train cars with a weight sensor, the total weight of the train is tracked and divided by 172 pounds, to approximate how many people are present. The technology is accurate to within five passengers, according to an MTA spokesperson. A fully loaded car can have up to 145 passengers.
Other cars, which have infrared sensors at doorways, detect each time a person walks on or off the train.
Public transit agencies worldwide are trying to figure out how to make riders safe and comfortable. Travelers are returning more quickly to transportation modes such as cars and bikes, where they don’t have to be in close contact with others.
Transportation agencies risk worsening budget shortfalls, and may have to make service cuts if riders don’t return. Experts have cautioned there could be paralyzing gridlock if bus and train riders overwhelmingly shift to car transportation.