…could be transformed, says DAVID WRIGHT, if we adhere to new design principles at the early stages of procurement

I’m a big fan of trains. Actually, what I mean is I’m a big fan of rail travel. Actually, that’s not right either; what I meant to say is that I’m a big fan of the concept of rail travel, or what rail travel ought to be. The idea of being able to travel at high speedbetween two points in a cost-effective, safe, efficient manner and in comfort is really appealing. The idea of big, heavy, ugly lumps (technical term, obviously) of freight being transported across the country by purpose-designed, efficient means, keeping those lumps of freight off roads which are singularly poorly designed to cope, is even more appealing – that might mean I can get to a station without the usual HGV / delivery van congestion.

So, do I use trains frequently? Well… yes and no. If I’m going to London or into Birmingham (from Rugby or Coventry), I’ll almost certainly use the train, but rarely if I’m going anywhere else; I simply can’t afford the time. That’s a debate for another day. Let me think about those times when I do use the train, and in particular what I think about that experience on-board as a passenger. I mentioned comfort earlier and that is, I suppose, one of the biggest gripes I have about rail travel – carriages, whether standard or first class, are generally not appealing places to be. Most of the rolling stock I travel on is ageing, and not ageing well, and reflects design thinking from another age, one which I struggle to believe had passenger experience at its heart.

Noticing the real issues
Let me start from the moment I raise my foot from the platform step onto the train, and let’s imagine that I have taken the ecologically-friendly decision to leave the car behind and go on holiday… with luggage! Having allowed other folk off the train, I attempt to get my luggage on board – having allowed everyone else on first, so I don’tblock the vestibule. Where’s the step relative to the platform? I know where it is relative to the train, because that’s where it always is – regardless of the platform height or gap. With even simple sensor technology, it is notbeyond the wit of man to design a step which optimises its position according to its relationship to the platform edge. Now on-board with the train accelerating, as I was the last one on, I face the challenge of negotiating my way past the person with the bike. If I’m lucky, it will be one of the nice folding jobs, owned by an equally nice folding person. If I’m unlucky, it will be a full-sized bike, owned by a full-sized lycra-clad self-righteous cyclist.

Now, in through the lovely sliding door, in the hope that the luggage rack has some space. Bottom tier full, so I need to man-handle one bag onto the upper tier, and one onto the overhead rack; obviously this one, although not light, is dimensionally not too big, otherwise there’s no hope. Has anyone ever considered the problems with manual handling of objects like luggage ina moving environment? Quite apart from the difficulties some poor folk will have because they simply cannotreach, the biomechanical stresses on the muscles andskeletal structure, amplified by loss of balance and the resultant uneven posture, could have profound impact on the person trying to stow luggage, not to mention the potential consequences of dropping said luggage onto another passenger!

Luggage stowed, off to find my reserved seat. Shuffle down the aisle, passing all the people who value their bags so highly that they’ve bought seats for them – or is it that they can’t or won’t stow it in the correct place?Hands up if, like me, you like to choose to sit nextto someone who’s done that, just for the hell of it? I manoeuvre myself into my allocated seat; once again, does anyone ever bother to conduct a biomechanical analysis of ingress and egress to and from train seats, to actually design a layout that works?

By some stroke of good fortune I’m next to a window, rather than the large slab of fibreglass panel between windows. However, as this is a Pendolino, the window is depressingly small. The small window, in my view, emphasises the overall sense of dreariness I feelwhenever I’m in one of these carriages. The colour palette is dated and does nothing to lift one’s spirits. The great slab of a seat back has to be one of the most unattractive pieces of design I’ve ever seen; I’m sorry if that offends the designer, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is an opinion piece after all.

Perhaps I’ll isolate myself from my environment by doing some work on my laptop; down with the seat back tray-table and hey presto – far too small to accommodate a laptop! Business travellers and commuters will recognise this one, I’m sure. Only one option left – sit back and relax… Hah! Train seats are clearly designed to keep you awake by making it impossible to find a comfortable position. I’m not tall – 178cm – but even I find it difficult to cross and uncross my legs. Which made me contemplate – when was the last time I sat on a really comfortable train seat? Let me think … eureka! It was in May 2016; in a carriage on the West Somerset Steam Railway, that was probably built prior to WW2. Nice sprung upholstery, a nice high seat back, with a good view out of a good-sized window. Ah, nostalgia’s not what it used to be; but don’t worry, it will be one day.

Intruding user-centred design
All of my ranting does have a serious point. It is that we do actually have the knowledge, the skills and the technology to do user-centred design much better than is done at the moment. We can apply science to these issues and we can capture meaningful, reliable data from techniques like biomechanical modelling and comfort mapping to make objective option comparisons, so that getting into and out of a comfortable seat in an attractive, relaxing environment should be easier. And yes, we are currently engaged in a research project looking at manual handling in a dynamic environment.

We also recognise that the train operators are users, too, so design for maintenance and cleaning are also factors which need to be designed in. And so is the question of re-configurability, the ability to change the layout of a carriage according to its routing, its usage (inter-city vs commuting) and even the time of day.

At Innotrans last year I saw some proposals (British designers, I’m proud to say) which are clearly beginning to consider these issues, but most interior solutions are simple, mild iterations from the previous state; as one operator I spoke to last year told me: ‘design isn’t really important; when we bid for the franchise, all we have to do is promise better schedule adherence and to re-cover the seats…’

I believe that design does matter, and can be a strong source of competitive advantage. Travel represents a significant cost for most of us, so as travellers we have a right to expect better.

David WrightDavid Wright is director of strategic initiatives at Coventry University, which launched the new £7m National Transport Design Centre in spring 2017.