Disinfection: the basis for passenger confidence post-Covid

Who can honestly say that they have never felt the dread of catching a cold from an inconsiderate passenger on a crowded commute?

The Covid-19 crisis has been a catalyst for awareness as to our vulnerability to viruses or other infections in enclosed spaces such as public transport. To restore ridership to pre-coronavirus levels, transit authorities and operators face an uphill task in reassuring passengers that their transport option is a safe one. In short: safety means trust, trust means riders, and riders mean revenue. In the space of three months, the entire economic balance of public transport has suddenly become dependent on immaculate public health measures.

It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that, in addition to the prevention of airborne transmission through mandatory face coverings, an increasing amount of interest is focussing on surface disinfection. Operators are spending more time and manpower than before on cleaning every possible surface of their vehicles, and more frequently. And alongside the traditional detergents, bleaches, mops and cloths, new disinfection solutions are emerging and proving their worth in other sectors of society in which cleanliness is the imperative prerequisite.

Cleantech innovation

These techniques were highlighted recently by Aster Fab, the consulting branch of venture capital fund Aster, which is itself part-financed by several leading French mobility players. The study, managed by Aster Fab director Louise Piednoir, unearthed several dozen small firms developing new technologies and hardware to disinfect surfaces and protect users.

“Many of these solutions have been tested or introduced in hospital environments and even aeroplanes,” says Jonathan Williet, Aster Fab consultant. “They have significant potential for transferability, once the specificities of the environment to be disinfected have been taken into consideration.” The report points to three main categories of disinfection.

1. UV lamp technology, highly effective on bacteria and viruses in the space of minutes. This method requires substantial protective equipment for operators, preferably isolating the area to be treated. As such, a robotic solution could prove the best way forward in increasing its use. UV light is already used in hospitals, with automated trolleys treating rooms and operating theatres quickly and efficiently.

2. Hydrogen peroxide (or H2O2), vaporised in the area to be treated, with micro-droplets coming into contact with every possible surface and killing any harmful microorganisms. The advantage here compared to liquid solutions is the absence of residue on surfaces, owing to its simple chemical composition. The challenge lies in making the droplets as fine as possible so that they can infiltrate even the smallest asperities in paintwork, for example.

3. Coatings applied to the elements of a transport vehicle such as grab bars, handles and even textiles. The molecular structure of these coatings destroys the DNA of microorganisms, rendering them harmless. Sprayed onto the surface to be treated, their efficacity naturally drops over time, and application intervals will vary according to the amount of service seen by the vehicle. These coatings have already been tested on textiles for use in hospitals.

Can the advent of cleaning robots drive the spread of these techniques? What about building coatings permanently into the very material of public transport hardware? Can these new ideas help to facilitate regular cleaning operations? One thing is for sure: disinfection (and why not eco-friendly at that?) is set to be a major factor in recouping passenger trust.

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