In this Engineering Reimagined episode, Becky Wood talks to Metro Trains Melbourne’s Tilly Loughborough about running a train network during a pandemic.
In this Engineering Reimagined episode, Becky Wood talks to Metro Trains Melbourne’s Tilly Loughborough about running a train network during a pandemic.

How do you run a train network during a pandemic?

Becky Wood & Tilly Loughborough | 12 August 2020 | 23:43

Podcast Transcript: How do you run a train network during a pandemic?

Maria Rampa: Hi, I’m Maria Rampa. Welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how much we rely on essential workers. Whether working in a hospital or supermarket, they’re providing services while putting their own health at risk. In cities around the world, public transport has been vital in enabling essential workers to travel and from work. With their own frontline workforce, public transport operators have faced the huge challenge of supporting the safety of employees and passengers, all while maintaining the operation of the network.

But with the shift to working from home, and growing fears among the community of infection, passenger numbers have dropped for many metro systems. Active transport is on the rise, with cycling surging in densely-populated cities like New York. So how can public transport operators rebuild customer confidence in using their services in a post-pandemic world, as cities move further towards integrated, multimodal transport systems? And what can we learn from cities where lockdowns have eased, to improve the public transport passenger experience?

To find out, Becky Wood, Aurecon’s Managing Director for Transportation in Australia and New Zealand talks to Tilly Loughborough, General Manager for Passenger Experience at Metro Trains Melbourne, which operates the city’s metropolitan rail service.

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Becky Wood: Tilly, thank you so much for joining me today, I am really conscious. This is a very, very busy time for yourself and your teams. And in particular, this is a pretty interesting moment in Melbourne and in Victoria as a whole. So, I'm really grateful for the time. These past few months have really taken us by surprise. But as I reflect back on my public transport career, I think, gosh, this is a really intense moment for us in terms of how we respond. How have you really found these last few months?

Tilly Loughborough: Thanks, Becky. It's good to be here and have that opportunity to talk to you because I absolutely agree with you. The pandemic has impacted everyone obviously, and it has affected the transport industry and indeed everybody across the globe. But on a personal level for me, originally I’m from the UK and so have many family and friends who are dear to me there and it does worry me greatly to see some of that impact as it is there too. But it is a blessing that whilst all of my family and friends over there are 10,000 miles apart from me, I can stay in touch and that's thanks to the developments in technology. And whilst it means I can't be there, I can see their faces and I can see that they're okay, which is fantastic. And I think that those changes, the technology, the improvements that we've seen there have absolutely continued and come on leaps and bounds since we've moved into this phase. So, I think in the background of all of the transport piece, which we’ll obviously come on to in a lot more detail, it's really given us a bit of a push forward in technology in where we are. And here in Melbourne, it might be a different group of people I have around me. But the impact is real out here too. And I think the best thing in the last five months that I've seen here is the way in which people are caring and supporting one another.

Becky Wood: I actually find one of the things that's kept me working in the transport infrastructure space for such a long time is the fact that we tend to be quite collaborative. We tend to be open to sharing the lessons that we're learning and what we're experiencing on our networks to support each other, improving the experience for our passengers across the international space. I think also absolutely agree that it's such a personal moment, everyone is experiencing this differently. I'm sure you have been thinking very hard and very carefully about both passengers and your staff, what sort of measures have you been putting in place to keep them safe?

Tilly Loughborough: We have made quite a few changes over the last few months. The first thing for us is to keep people safe and that is our own people within the business but also our passengers. Safety does remain paramount for us. If I look at what we've done in the customer space, we've put in a cleaning regime that's over and above what we would already usually deliver as a good standard of cleaning, which means that we've been cleaning those high touchpoints more frequently. So things like the ticket vending machines, and the areas of the station that regularly get used like seats by our customers. That continues onto our trains. There's been 24-hour disinfecting of all of our services, and we've got a very big fleet. And obviously keeping people informed, which we know is something that's one of the basic things that we really need to improve upon and get right for our customers. We've worked very closely with the Department of Transport to have very clear announcements for people to guide them in the things we'd like people to do. And also different key information about things such as topping up a myki online and saving themselves the time and conversation when they do get to a station where we're not currently able to take cash. The other good thing that we've been able to do is add some additional facilities at stations so at this point, hand sanitisers, pretty important for everybody in that whole hygiene and staying safe. The other thing that we've done is we've kept a full timetable running during the whole five months, that COVID has primarily hit us. And that's meant that we've been able to put in place 19 additional services and some further ones to go live. While that might seem a little bit bizarre while we have a lower number of people travelling, what it enables is that keep your distance where you can, which is the message to customers, is made possible because we've got more services operating in those shoulder peaks outside of the main peak times. So people can choose to travel a little bit later or a little bit earlier, to make their journey a bit more comfortable for them.

Becky Wood: I can really understand what we're trying to do there in terms of just giving people space, to use the capacity differently and to sit separately and to be a bit more distant from each other.

Tilly Loughborough: Across the Victoria network, we have those challenges, the early morning peak and the afternoon peak is at full capacity, we're already using all of the space we have for trains. So the only way we can provide that additional is by moving a little bit outside of those times and encouraging our customers to do the same which will hopefully help everybody in the long term and as we, at some point in time, do have more people travelling on the network and that patronage is returned for us.

Becky Wood: There's some really critical frontline staff involved in this conversation so I absolutely understand why you want to have the cleaning regime enhanced but also I'm assuming it's pretty visible to passengers and, you've got a lot of frontline people out there, station staff, officers, drivers maintenance crews, cleaners. How have your staff responded to COVID-19?

Tilly Loughborough: Very well, we have a large frontline workforce and those frontline individuals don't have the opportunity to be able to carry out their roles from home. So they are doing a fantastic job of keeping those essential services running and making sure that those who are in essential work elsewhere can actually get to their work location, so the police and medical services, etc. And also making sure those who want to get to appointments, making sure they look after people as they do travel and have the information they need. Our people all have their own set of individual and personal challenging circumstances that they're dealing with, many people, with children who are home schooling, people who've got elderly or parents or relatives that they need to care for, I'd take an opportunity at this stage to do a shout out to them really and say thank you.

Becky Wood: Safety and transport are topics that are so interrelated. For me now I've worked in mainly rail actually, in my career and, safety is front of mind for us. In terms of where I've thought of safety previously, I've certainly been part of transport teams in responding to some pretty major incidents on networks previously, but those safety incidents are very different from the public health reaction that we're having to have here. You look at accidents or operational failures, and we've got procedures and we respond from a safety perspective. This is really different territory. Do you find your transport planners are having to embrace some really different thinking here to kind of help us respond robustly as a network?

Tilly Loughborough: I think there are some similarities in what we were doing in usual terms. Safety remains our first priority and it's the first thing that we look at. But as you say, we've got a current situation, which has a term that I'm finding I'm using quite often that uncharted waters or unprecedented times, and it might seem a little twee, but it is true. So we are handling our safe operations as we always would, and we do that daily. But we do need to then take the principles that we have and apply them to new circumstances as we would when we introduce any initiative, carry out the risk assessments, make sure that we're clear on what it means for our passengers and for our people, and make sure that the network is prepared to accept these changes. We already have the usual things that you would expect in a business like those business continuity plans in terms of what happens if, and they have really come to the fore for us at the moment and we continue to change them as we see different things happening. We've got really strong pandemic policies in place and going back to that piece around looking after our people, that really is designed to make sure that we do have some real clear support in place. Going back to some of those improvements we talked about earlier on, there are some positives out of it, and we do get some positive flow on into the passenger experience that we provide as well as the environment for our people around this. So it is challenging times, and we probably do need to work a lot quicker and a lot smarter and more efficiently because of what's been thrown at us with the pandemic. It does also mean that we look at things still as effectively but a little differently and probably progress a little bit quicker than we would have ordinarily of done.

Becky Wood: How do you see customer behaviour evolving in the future beyond the current restrictions and experience we've got but perhaps there's going to be some evolution as a result of this experience?

Tilly Loughborough: We've already seen some changes. We typically do have around 800,000 journeys a day. Our patronage, particularly in those early stages dropped around 90%. That has a big impact upon what we're doing and how we're moving people. Though it is a relatively lower number of individuals who are travelling with us on the trains at the moment, the important part for us is that we are assisting those essential workers in getting to work, you know, whether it be healthcare that supply chain, emergency services more generally. We do need to make sure that what we do is set to support that progress and whatever we change and however people's behaviour and travel patterns evolve into the future, that we still have that core travel with commuters in that space. I am thinking it’s going to be an ever changing and evolving time for some months to come. So we will need to change how we do business and not just how we operate. But we'll also see some patterns I'm sure in our customers where some operations and businesses choose to continue to do some working from home, they've got used to that virtual world and for the main part, a lot of their work can continue on that basis, which will mean some changes to who is and isn't travelling with us. We also need to be in a place where we're prepared as a business to support those who do choose to come back and start travelling again and obviously the importance for us is around gaining that confidence that they are safe to travel and are comfortable to travel. And we will continue to both support our people to be able to get there, but importantly, also support customers to be able to make their own travel choices as the return happens.

Becky Wood: It's been interesting to compare and contrast between international experience. What I've been really impressed by is the consistent theme here, is transit authorities are just really leaning into this, looking to offer the flexibility that our passengers need. And providing as much information as possible in all forms, into their hands if they've got a smartphone, or elsewhere on the network in different ways so that people feel informed. And they feel that confidence that they know that the operators are really thinking about this. I might ask for your views in terms of how the passenger behaviour in Melbourne compares with train passengers elsewhere beyond our shores, perhaps here in Australia, but in other cities and countries.

Tilly Loughborough: There are very different scenarios when you move country to country and some of the work we do here. We've got partner organisations in different locations and our own shareholder organisations in the UK, Sweden, Hong Kong and broader and so we do have conversations around how passenger behaviour is impacted or needs to be supported in different areas and how that differs when we move continent to continent even. And there's a commonality though that the pandemic's been difficult for everybody. And it's meant changes in what we do. And I think that's from an operator perspective, but also from our passenger perspective. Whilst there might be a small minority of people who are not following government guidance, in the main, everybody is doing the right thing. And I think that's common across the globe, which is really good to see. I guess in our space in Victoria, we were already seeing some high levels of investment in the network. And that continues with the big build, which improves the network for the future as we go forward. That helps with that passenger behaviour piece, because if we've got the right infrastructure and the right network, that also allows our passengers to behave appropriately. The good thing about being a part of a global organisation more broadly is we can leapfrog some of those learnings that others have gone through to be able to move forward for the transport networks of the future. It's great that we've got the ability to real time connect with colleagues in those other countries and look at what's happening on their networks. And, when compulsory masks and face coverings were introduced, how's that being handled elsewhere in the network? There's a lot of work behind the scenes in connecting with that global scenario to make sure that we do learn from one another.

Becky Wood: I must confess, I absolutely love the MTR cleaning robot. I'm really passionate about how much virtual technology can bring to us in terms of that user-centric design idea, getting into the personas of different passengers and their experiences. Large infrastructure projects where we can bring the passenger to life virtually in thinking about what we're planning and really immersing ourselves in the experience our passengers are going to have. One thing that comes to mind for me is about adjustments for individuals who might be sitting in wheelchairs when they're experiencing our transport networks and how we can make that experience optimal. Are you seeing some of this virtual stuff coming into our industry and bringing opportunities with it?

Tilly Loughborough: Yes, I think there's a there's a whole raft of opportunities in that space. I'm always keen with my background in that customer experience design piece to make sure that what we put in place has strong foundations. Our Department of Transport colleagues are making some huge inroads in what they are developing in the ticketing space. So, making sure that the online processes are upgraded and able to support our customers as the holder of the multimodal information, which covers all networks across the State. The progression that they're making in terms of the journey planning information, but as Metro, also to support that and make sure that our information on our website and how we make that available to our customers is good. Earlier in the year, we launched a new focus on our Twitter. We had a bit of a world-first in a real true personalisation for our customers to be able to pull out only the information they need, and have the information sent to them that's specific for the line that they're travelling on, to take away some of the noise that isn't relevant to them. On our passenger information displays on platforms, we've introduced what we affectionately refer to as a burn line, which basically is a countdown line that’s on the screen, lets people know when the train is about to depart and means we can get our services prepared to be able to depart on time. We’re looking at how we can do better around that way-finding and the digital mapping of information so that people can access at their fingertips and when they choose to access that information before they travel, preferably, so that they can plan their journeys and choose their options as it fits for them.

Becky Wood: I'm really interested by the idea of that provision of information beforehand. I know a lot of our customers in the transport space are really quite multimodal in their thinking these days, and particularly seeing some of the active transport progression that's happening. So one of the unexpected reactions to the pandemic has been seeing quite a lot of cycling and walking, coming into play in a lot of our urban centres, which is really becoming quite popular. And that growth in active transport, where do you see that in terms of integrating into the existing rail network and allowing our passengers those choices?

Tilly Loughborough: I absolutely think we have to. Again, back to that collaborative piece that we have in working very closely with the other transport operators across Melbourne, and the Department of Transport on how we can make sure that we can allow people to access stations effectively and not just for the cycling, the walking but how we can make it easier for people to access our network, people with mobility issues, or additional needs that they have when they're travelling. For instance, at the moment at one of our stations, trialling the ability for people to operate lifts without having to touch the button. That doesn't just help us with the current times where we've got the pandemic and therefore, people are a little bit more nervous about touching surfaces, but it has the benefit for someone who's in a wheelchair who perhaps can't reach the button ordinarily or has some issues with the mobility of their hands. It really starts to offer some wider benefits, the improvements that are being made at the moment for that broader network and broader travel for everybody who wants to use the service.

Becky Wood: Absolutely. And I love the idea that that equity of access is increasing through the way we're innovating, the use of different channels of communication just to open things out where people might have impairments we can't necessarily see. But perhaps they need more information in a better form to interact with our network confidently.

Tilly Loughborough: We've got to make sure that we bear that in mind in that design space. And anything we do on our infrastructure. There's a whole huge thought process goes behind any of the introduction of new stations.

Becky Wood: How much data is being collected as we go through this experience? What is that teaching us about our network and what we need to be doing?

Tilly Loughborough: As a customer to a network, we don't see that whole piece around the amount of data that's collected and used, and it does give us that opportunity to take to analyse, to develop the trends to see exactly what's happening out there. And, allows us to respond in a more agile way to what's going on.

Becky Wood: What are the key aspects of resilient transport networks, knowing what we're experiencing now?

Tilly Loughborough: Some of the key things for me really are about being agile, responding to what's given to us and making sure that we take the opportunities that we have. We will undoubtedly see further changes in the coming months. And I guess that resilience and having that resilient transport network is about positioning ourselves should I say, to be able to make those changes effectively, to make the right considerations as we make those changes, but do it in a targeted way, and do it in a way where we respond quickly and for the benefit of our people and our customers as we go.

Becky Wood: I'm sure you and I've worked for many years alongside of engineering colleagues. What role do you think engineers can play in designing these transport infrastructures of the future?

Tilly Loughborough: I have worked alongside many different engineers and many different individuals along the way who have already played an active role in designing that transport infrastructure of the future. Those roles are critical in making sure what we design is fit for purpose as we go forward, that foresight of being able to look at what the current impact is for our customers is something that the engineers can play a huge part. The great thing is there's a lot of focus on bringing females into those STEM roles and making sure that it is a diverse workforce, not just in gender terms, but also in terms of making sure we've got a socially inclusive workforce, which represents or mirrors the communities that we do serve out there and means that those facilities that are put in place, that infrastructure that is developed, is much more fit for purpose and it really does reflect what's needed. And we don't have to deal with some of the retrospective fit out of things that we've perhaps seen with some of the older and more heritage networks that we deal with at the moment.

Becky Wood: I love that the diversity of the profession has grown so much in terms of the breadth of disciplines, because we need everything from data science to user centric design, and the full breadth of the engineering profession, to come around that and make sure we're representing the full breadth of the customer base, and really understanding what communities want from transport. So I'm really hopeful as I see that diversity grow and that we're more representative as an industry of what our customer base can be. It's a real opportunity for us to keep enhancing what we do. So again, thank you so much, Tilly, I'm really grateful for your time. Any closing remarks you want to leave us with?

Tilly Loughborough: It's been great to have such a detailed conversation about what is going on in the transport network and transport industry at the moment. It does make me think about how much progress is being made in transport and never so quickly as it's happening at the moment in response to in part to the pandemic. But also, just going back to that people piece, that, we've got a great workforce out there. A lot of people on the front line who keep delivering a great job for us day after day, and for the benefit of our customers and making sure that transport does run in difficult and uncharted times.

Becky Wood: Absolutely. And we're very grateful for it, actually. It's a really hopeful conversation. I'm so delighted for that.

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Maria Rampa: Thanks for listening to this episode of Engineering Reimagined. It’s inspiring to hear about the essential work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure public transport is safe for passengers and employees while remaining fully operational, and also how our transport networks are looking towards the future to make sure they remain relevant and appropriate for our needs as individuals and as communities. If you found this episode interesting, tell your friends about it or leave a review in Apple Podcasts. You can subscribe to Engineering Reimagined on Spotify and Apple Podcasts and many other podcast apps. Join the conversation using the hashtag #EngineeringReimagined or follow Aurecon on social for updates about the podcast. Until next time.

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Show notes

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how much we rely on essential workers. Whether working in a hospital or supermarket, they have been providing services non-stop while putting their own health at risk. It’s become apparent how vital public transport is in enabling our modern-day heroes to travel to and from work, but means operators also face the huge challenge of supporting the safety of employees and passengers and maintaining operation of the network.

However, with more people working remotely along with growing fears among the community of catching the infection, passenger numbers have dwindled for many metro systems. Active transport – on the other hand – is on the rise, with cycling surging in densely-populated cities like New York.

How can public transport operators rebuild customer confidence in using their services in a post-pandemic world, as cities move further towards integrated, multimodal transport systems? And what can we learn from cities where lockdowns have eased, to improve the public transport passenger experience?

To answer these questions, Aurecon’s Managing Director for Transportation in Australia & New Zealand Becky Wood talks to Metro Trains Melbourne’s General Manager for Passenger Experience Tilly Loughborough.

Meet our guests

Learn more about Becky Wood and Tilly Loughborough.
Becky Wood - Managing Director for Transportation in Australia & New Zealand, Aurecon

Becky Wood

Managing Director for Transportation, Australia & New Zealand, Aurecon

Becky is a renowned leader in the rail industry, having led several complex and significant rail major programmes in United Kingdom such as Transport for London and Network Rail. Prior to joining Aurecon, she served as the Executive Director, Fleet Program Delivery of Transport for New South Wales.

Tilly Loughborough - General Manager for Passenger Experience, Metro Trains Melbourne

Tilly Loughborough

General Manager for Passenger Experience, Metro Trains Melbourne

Tilly Loughborough joined Metro Trains Melbourne as General Manager - Passenger Experience in July 2019. With 15 years of global experience, at board-director level, Tilly has an in-depth knowledge of public transport operations and a specialism of putting the customer at the heart of all decisions, from design through to delivery.

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