New age of the train

Britain’s rail network is a relic of a bygone era and lags behind its European counterparts, argues Jim Davies – we need to stop making do and instead let design take the strain

Coal may have fired the Industrial Revolution, but the railways spread the flames. Hulking, hissing steam engines carried ideas and opportunity as well as materials and manpower the length and breadth of the land, laying the foundations for the most astonishing period of economic growth Britain has ever seen.

If the railway system is an ongoing metaphor for the state of the nation, we’re currently in a parlous state indeed. As someone who has the regular misfortune to avail themselves of a seat on a second-class carriage, I can report that our 21st-century trains are dirty, decrepit, inefficient, overcrowded, expensive, cold when they should be warm, hot when they should be cool, unfriendly, untidy and appallingly designed. Apart from that, I struggle to find fault with them.

To add insult to injury, the pitiful excuses for tardiness can verge on the surreal. We have little choice but to take the various ’incidents’, signalling faults, engineering works and missing train crew announcements in our stride. We’ve even become accustomed to the consequences of lorries hitting bridges, leaves on the track and the ’wrong kind of snow’. But it’s the ’small trackside fire’, ’giant clown on the line’ and ’failed virgin at Milton Keynes’ that bring some light relief to the heavy-hearted commuter’s travails. Let the train take the strain? Take the train, feel the pain more like.

If the definition of design is the application of ingenuity and common sense, our railways need it faster than a Japanese Bullet engine. Public transport has a vital role to play in achieving a sustainable future, but at the moment we seem to be determined to drive people back into their cars.

It’s ironic that in mainland Europe, the rail infrastructure was so severely bombed during the war that it virtually had to be designed from scratch. As a result, our European Union partners are now enjoying the benefits of a comparatively modern, well-structured system. Though the Luftwaffe did its best over here, we escaped relatively unscathed, and have been making do and mending our antiquated tracks ever since.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s our failure to look ahead, to accept and adopt new design ideas and technologies for the railways that have held us back. Astonishingly, we clung on to steam engines right up until the late 1960s, while our more progressive Continental cousins embraced the newfangled electricity like a sex-starved lightning conductor out on the pull. There’s no logic to the network. Like any design brief, we need to think about the audience first and then find ways to answer their needs.

Last week in Holland, I made a five-hour round trip by train and the experience was an eye-opener. First, the Nederlandse Spoorwegen website was informative and easy to use. It furnished you not only with the train times and prices, but the exact platform you needed – that would be unheard of over here, where skittish, last-minute changes are as common as a wet Tuesday. The tickets were reasonably priced, trains ran to the minute, and though well used, were never uncomfortably full. We sat on the top of a double-decker carriage, with fine uninterrupted views of the countryside and city architecture. People across the aisle were friendly, and no one insisted on a game of dodge the eyeball. Smooth, painless and fast – you can’t ask for more.

So clearly, it can be done. But how long will we have to wait at the platform listening to yet more ludicrous excuses before design blows its whistle and comes screeching to the rescue?

Jim Davies is founder of copywriting studio Total Content

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