It’s all about bums on seats

Train overcrowding has long been a problem, and it’s getting worse. What can designers do to cheer the put-upon commuter?

It’s a familiar scene. Morning rush hour, packed in like sardines, iPods blaring, a fellow passenger’s armpit hovering dangerously close to the face, which is already squashed against the train doors, as the next herd of travellers beg you to ‘move down a bit please’.

UK rail passengers have recently become so infuriated with overcrowding – and a decision to remove seats from trains – that they pitched a fare strike to protest in January.

As well as the argument for rail companies to add more tracks, improve signalling and run more services, there is clearly a significant need for carriage interior design to improve – in line with growing passenger numbers – in order to alleviate overcrowding.

And it doesn’t stop there. Comfort, cleanliness, good quality food and drink, and a pleasant environment – all feature on the passenger wish-list.

This is by no means a new problem, and Transport for London and other rail groups are said to be in constant ‘consultation’ about how interior design can improve comfort and stamp out overcrowding. But what does this mean in practice?

According to its group design manager Innes Ferguson, TfL is investing more than £223m in 44 brand new, UK-built trains for the London overground network.

London Underground, meanwhile, has delivered a significant number of refurbished trains on the District Line, in an attempt to relieve congestion and provide comfort.

‘Design can play a strong role as the overviewer and customer representative for the whole journey experience,’ says Ferguson. ‘A client-side designer can see the whole picture and be able to direct the vision forward in its entirety. Increased comfort and security should be foremost in their vision.’

TfL commissions 2D design from a roster of four companies to meet internal client and customer needs, and Ferguson believes that there are only a few projects on the rail network that are untouched by design. ‘We are fortunate that a company such as TfL has such a rich vein of design heritage – most projects and programmes are at the very least aware of it and do not intentionally disrupt it,’ he says.

Yet, currently the UK falls pitifully behind its European and Asian counterparts when it comes to rail design. As soon as something goes wrong – leaves on the line, snow, low-lying sun, signal failure – the transport system grinds to a halt, and uncomfortable, overcrowded chaos ensues.

France, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Japan all appear to manage a reasonable level of efficiency and comfort when it comes to running their rail infrastructures – which can mean providing double-deckers, playrooms for children or seats that fold away during peak times.

So, why is the UK lagging behind these countries? Factory Design partner Adam White, who has worked on rail interiors, says, ‘There is always an opportunity for more to be done. The revolution that has been going on in aircraft interiors has not been repeated in train design.

‘There is a more sophisticated use of space elsewhere in the world. Here, it seems to be about how many rows of seats you can squeeze in. It is a British disease – the idea that you have a carriage where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder with somebody’s bum in their faces. I think it is unbelievable how Tube trains are designed. Within the carriage space available there are always opportunities to evolve the design to meet the growing needs of passengers.’

‘In a way we need somebody in the rail companies to say “Hold on, I have a dream, this is just wrong”. Things have to be rethought. Trains seem designed to take away our dignity. They should design carriages for those who want to sit, and provide separate carriages where passengers have to stand – there is always a way to solve problems.’

In January, First Great Western unveiled new interiors for its high-speed trains, as part of a £63m overhaul by Michael Rodber, founder of Jones Garrard Move.

Rodber was tasked with updating the interiors to live up to modern passenger needs, as well as improve comfort. In response, he created new standard class seats – which encourage customer posture – as well as leather-trimmed first class seats, lighting and a bar.

‘There is an element within the transport experience that I always call “dignity”,’ he says.

‘I expect trains to be clean and smell nice. To improve capacity there must be efficient seat design. Part of that is comfort, some of it is modern seats, but how do you move on from there?

‘An area where there is some scope for development is personal space for working, providing better areas for business people. With everyone now using iPods and WiFi, carriage design has to move on.

‘We have the opportunity to look at the demographic and bring an original point of view. Shifting numbers, working out what is the most efficient way of utilising the current transport system is just one side of the coin. The challenge is to strike a balance between this quest for functionality and the need to create a great environment for travellers.’

• Rail passengers carry out a fare strike to protest at overcrowding in January 2007
• Transport for London is investing £223m in 44 new trains for the London overground network, and has delivered a number of refurbished trains on the District Line, with trains on other lines due to be rolled out
• TfL has two Official Journal of the European Union framework agreements, each with four companies, most of which are almost constantly commissioned for design

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  • Mike Hempstead November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I am a Crossrail Architect commuting with NXEA from Colchester to Liverpool st. Please inform me who instructed the design of our unreasonably narrow carriage seats. Across the carriage, we have 3 seats a gangway and 2 seats. Might there be more like this?

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