Research collaboration to understand the spread of COVID-19 and keep public transport back on track

A major scientific study has been launched to understand the risks of COVID-19 transmission on public transport such as buses and trains and to identify the best measures to control it.

The investigation run by collaborative UK universities, with support from the Department for Transport and several transport organisations, will involve taking air and surface samples on parts of the transport network to measure background levels of the coronavirus.

Led by The University of Leeds, researchers from several institutions including The University of Manchester will develop detailed simulations of the way the virus could potentially spread through airflow, from touching contaminated surfaces and 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 – and that 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 Project TRACK (Transport Risk Assessment for Covid Knowledge), the study will conduct fieldwork on buses and trains in London, Leeds and Newcastle, including the light-rail system in Tyne and Wear. 

TRACK co-investigator Dr Ian Hall, from the Department of Mathematics at The University of Manchester and a participant of SAGE, the Government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies, believes this is a critical gap in the knowledge base on disease transmission.

He said: “Disease transmission models rely on basis of social contact network and we have an understanding of mixing at home and work but social mixing and strength of contact in other settings are less well understood.”

Disease transmission models rely on basis of social contact network and we have an understanding of mixing at home and work but social mixing and strength of contact in other settings are less well understood
Dr Ian Hall

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 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.”

The research is funded by a £1.6 million grant from UK Research and Innovation.

Project TRACK

The scientist leading the study is Professor Cath Noakes, an expert in the transmission of pathogens inside buildings, based in the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Leeds.

Professor 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, and 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. 

Under existing legislation, people using public transport are required to wear a face covering, unless exempt. In addition, they are encouraged to keep a social distance of at least one metre and to wash their hands after travelling.

The modelling and data analysis will involve experts from the universities of Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.  

Environmental sampling of the virus will be undertaken by Public Health England. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London will investigate the analysis of airflows inside carriages.

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