‘The new normal’. It’s a phrase which is being thrown around constantly at the moment, as multiple different business sectors, politicians and commentators try to establish what a post-lockdown UK might look like. How will organisational operations and working practices need to change in order to maintain necessary social distancing measures, whilst getting the economy going again?

The transport industry is at the heart of many of these conversations. After all, bus, rail and tram networks are essential in ferrying people to and from work – and they are also environments where people inevitably come into contact with many other people from outside their home and work environments. Managing transport networks efficiently and safely is going to be a vital challenge in the post-lockdown world – and critical communications networks will be a vital piece of the picture.

Here are some of the ways in which critical communications could get the transport sector moving again.

Proactively monitoring passenger numbers

One of the simplest – and yet most important – elements of running a safe transport network in the aftermath of full lockdown will be controls on the number of passengers using a network at any one time. Certainly the idea of cramming hundreds of people into a Tube carriage seems extremely foolhardy.

But maintaining a real-time awareness of passenger numbers – and being able to communicate to waiting passengers whether or not they are able to board a particular vehicle or carriage – requires dynamic technology. There are a few different options. Smart sensors could track weight in each carriage or vehicle, or calculate the numbers of bodies entering and leaving – theoretically, this could be combined with apps on passengers’ smartphones. High-definition video streaming of each vehicle or carriage could be combined with artificial intelligence to calculate how many people are on board at any time.

The point is, these strategies require data-rich communications, potentially including high-definition video, as well as integration with either mobile apps, or smart screens at stops and stations, which can communicate with passengers. In other words, they require a communications network able to handle rich data, not just voice.

Demand-driven services

Another key aspect of post-lockdown transport could be the need to precisely tailor services in line with the most critical need – for example, taking key workers to and from their places of work – whilst not over-servicing at other times and potentially encouraging unnecessary travel.

Demand-responsive travel is hardly a new idea – it is a key piece of the puzzle for developing more efficient and environmentally-friendly cities – but could the coronavirus pandemic see it ramped up sooner? Delivering such networks requires sensors at stops and on board vehicles which can determine when particular numbers of passengers are waiting, as well as the ability to dynamically re-route buses whilst out on the road, in order to avoid disruptions and actively respond to passenger needs.

Safe and secure

Another aspect of high-definition video streaming in relation to post-lockdown transport could be a heightened need to ensure the safety of passengers, to proactively identify when individuals might be ignoring social distancing rules, and for transport operators to seamlessly pass and receive information from emergency services accordingly. This requires high-definition video surveillance, but also communications networks which enable seamless collaboration with between emergency services, first responder and drivers.

Additionally, there might be a need for transport operators to offer contact tracing functionality, perhaps via integration with the NHS’s contact tracing app. In theory, this could mean that a passenger who later displayed symptoms of COVID-19 could automatically provide an alert for all other passengers who used said transport at the same time.

In practice: TETRA and LTE combined

What all this requires in practice is an integrated approach to the critical communications network, one which combines voice and high-speed data communications. In turn, this means unifying LTE technology which can handle data-rich transmissions, with traditional narrowband PMR networks, such as TETRA.

This is precisely what ETELM’s 4GLinked solution is designed to achieve. It is a fully integrated LTE and TETRA solution, which allows both systems to interoperate over a single backbone transmission network.

We already knew that the transport networks of the future would look very different. It may be that the coronavirus pandemic will reshape them faster and more dramatically than we ever expected.