Keolis: Combatting COVID-19 through systematic and passenger-centric planning

Posted: 28 May 2020 | | No comments yet

Within Episode 9 of the Intelligent Transport Podcast, Editor Luke Antoniou is joined by Bernard Tabary, CEO International of one of the world’s largest public transport operators, Keolis, to discuss how the organisation has overcome the challenges presented by COVID-19, and how some of the most prevalent mobility trends have been impacted by the pandemic.



What is your role within Keolis?

Keolis is a public transport operator that operates in 15 countries around the world, and I’m in charge of activities outside France. We operate in Europe, the UK, North America and Australia, as well as China, India, the Middle East and soon in Africa.

We operate a variety of transport modes – metros, trains, buses, bicycles and car parks – with a focus on two essential points: safety and passengers. Being passenger-centric is what characterises our line of business and our networks, as well as the public transport authorities who organise transport in their states, regions or cities.

How do you think progress for cities and authorities might be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our view is that the circumstances will really trigger more thinking from populations in general, as well as from organisations, public transport authorities (PTAs) or elected officials about what’s coming in the future. We have had to – and are having to – demonstrate a lot of agility in our response to the COVID-19 crisis and find solutions in organisations that one might have previously impossible.  We know for sure that ahead of us is the issue of global warming and the public health challenge that comes with it. Societies have shown that they can adjust fast to COVID-19, even though the threat is probably longer-term.

The challenge of public transport having to sell itself as a choice and not as an obligation is something that existed pre-COVID-19

In fact, the International Energy Agency has shown that in the last two months, the emissions causing global warming have fallen by eight per cent, whereas 7.6 per cent is needed to keep the situation as it is. This reduction of emissions is indicative of what we should be doing to mitigate global warming, which is currently forecast to increase by about 3°C by the end of the century.

I feel that the COVID-19 crisis will accelerate awareness of the need to develop and deploy sustainable transport solutions.

How do you think authorities should approach this? Do you think existing goals need to be adapted in order to cater for the reductions in emissions we have seen?

The reduction of car traffic and industrial pollution in the last few months has had a major impact through that period. Public transport has continued to operate – not with the same fluidity of course – but with services that were comparable with before COVID-19. So, suddenly, it sends a signal that action may indeed generate results. It is obvious that governance will have to deal first with the economic impact of the crisis and the restart of the economy in general.

I sense that the programmes that were already underway will continue. For example, we have hundreds of e-buses that have been – and are being – deployed in 2020 and 2021 in France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the U.S. with investment programmes that have a local impact and create local jobs. They get deployed where they were manufactured, or at least where they operate. I think that the governments will be sensitive to that and are keen to move forward with similar ideas.

What challenges does the pandemic present to the mobility sector in encouraging shared mobility, all over again? How do transport operators like Keolis begin to rebuild public trust in shared solutions once this is over?

The challenge of public transport having to sell itself as a choice and not as an obligation is something that existed pre-COVID-19; we could see that passengers had the choice between multiple modes and the public transport mode was a very efficient one from an emission viewpoint, as well as from a reliability perspective. But, of course, the conditions required to fight COVID-19, such as social distancing on public transport, has seen the flow of passengers disappear. We are not going to have to restart everything, but instead I’d say we have to grow the public’s appetite for public transport. Restoring trust is probably the top priority since a recent survey showed that  people rank public transport just below nightclubs in terms of risk of catching the virus.  Our challenge is therefore to restore confidence in using public transport.

How do we do that? We do that by first ensuring the environment is extremely, and visibly, clean. We do that by using virucide and anti-bacterial products for daily cleaning of passenger zones including handrails and bars as well as driver’s cabs. This disinfection is done during operational hours as well as during downtime. That is step one.

The good news is that public transport is already a system; when you operate a metro, a train system or a tram, as well as other modes, you do not operate on your own.

In that respect, it has been great to see the Victorian government (in Australia) approve a programme to get 300 people back to work who have been laid off. We are going to employ them to clean our 1,200 tram stops on the Melbourne network and it will be very visible to the public. We have also deployed staff like this on the Gold Coast and in the Netherlands where the public reacts very positively to the visibility of cleaners. During operational hours they are seen to perform a task which is considered indispensable and therefore they get positive feedback from passengers; they get credit, take pleasure in it and they play a very important role. That, to me, is a crucial step in rebuilding trust.

Beyond that, the encouragement of passengers to use masks and other protective measures and, of course, be conscious of social distancing, is also important. Some countries impose social distancing, like France, and some have just recommended it, like Germany, but that is also a key step.

Every operator, whether they are established or new, is challenged by the current situation

Other steps include digital innovations like ticket dematerialisation, where one can offer incentives and discounts to passengers to bring them back, as well as working with companies and universities which are big traffic generators and ensuring they’re scheduled and adjusted to minimise peak times and ensure the passenger flow is spread over the full day.

The good news for us is that we have seen a gradual rise in patronage. Over the past few weeks, our operations in China have seen patronage returning to 60 to 70 per cent of what it was, and Germany returning to 35 to 40 per cent (as of May 15). Trust is coming back slowly. We are reassured by surveys in which growing numbers of passengers agree with the statement “In three months from now, I believe that I will be back in public transport, provided I feel safe.”

To what extent do you think policymakers need to be clear and concise in encouraging the use of masks, for example, and having the public be hygienic when using services?

cleaning transportWe execute instructions and regulations decided by governments because they are informed by medical expertise.  Our experience operating a multitude of modes of transport on multiple networks around the world suggest that when the bigger picture is clearly laid out and common sense solutions proposed, people rise to the opportunity and the challenge, by behaving as safely as possible.

I’m confident that most governments have fulfilled their roles in providing clarity and perspective on COVID issues. Sure, there may be a few adjustments to be made here and there, but overall people look up to them and so do we.

When it comes to new mobility, how important is it going to be for public and private mobility companies to be able to work together towards a common goal after the pandemic? How can a company like Keolis act as a figurehead in this way of thinking?

The good news is that public transport is already a system; when you operate a metro, a train system or a tram, as well as other modes, you do not operate on your own. You operate with a PTA, a manufacturer, a civil constructor, signalling providers and others. So, it is important that we can interact with others.

Our ability to be agile with partners and to continue coming up with transport means that are different, such as shared mobility, on-demand transport, cycling and walking, and then integrate that into an intermodal offer, is essential in ensuring that the hinges are oiled and that the relationship with the partners is articulated smoothly. What drives the collective ambition is customer satisfaction, which requires understanding what the customer wants.

The customer will one day want to be on a scooter, another day will want to walk and another day will want to use the tram or the metro, and we’ve got to adjust to that in an agile manner. On that, we’ve also got to make sure that we are conscious of other modes, understand what the hinges are and ensure that they are well-oiled.

How does COVID-19 affect the progress that’s been made in new mobility to-date?

Every operator, whether they are established or new, is challenged by the current situation, be it in dealing with the operational constraints, the fall in patronage or the financial difficulties. I can therefore imagine that there will be some sectorial consolidations that will pick up speed, and I believe we’ll be able to detect some societal evolutions such as working from home probably having an impact, as well as distribution of flows over the weeks.

What remains is that when you operate a metro line that carries 500,000 or a million passengers a day, that flow is not going to be managed just by bicycles or e-scooters.

Even if there is more working from home, there will still be a lot of people commuting because not all work can be conducted from home.

It is important to understand what customers want by analysing data. Luckily, we have things like GPS data that can be used with respect of privacy, to understand the evolution of flows, and these are methods that we are starting to use already, ensuring that we can adapt the offers to meet what tomorrow’s customer will really want. That is an adjusted public transport offer compared to today, but a strong need for mobility will remain.

We see a truly positive challenge ahead of us involving restoring trust, adjusting to circumstances, and working with other partners in the mobility chain towards a fossil-fuel free mobility that reinforces the appeal and liveability of cities and territories.  


Born in 1960, Bernard Tabary is a graduate of Rouen Business School. He started his career with the Bolloré group in 1983. From 1983 to 2000, he held a number of management roles in the Transport and Logistics branch, including Vice Chairman of Marketing, Quality and Information Systems (1989 – 1994), Managing Director Australia and New Zealand (1994 – 1995) and Director Africa Line (1997 – 2000).

In 2000, he was appointed Managing Director of the Environment Division of Plastic Omnium, an automotive equipment manufacturer.

He joined the Keolis Group in 2005 as Deputy Managing Director. In 2007, he was appointed Managing Director of Keolis Lyon, the Group’s subsidiary, with responsibility for operating and maintaining Lyon’s public transport network. In 2011, he was appointed Group Executive Director International.