/ Technology, Travel & Leisure

Is modern train design already out of date?

Train in sun

We’ve all experienced a terrible train journey with no seats and rammed aisles. Is this just due to more commuters, or is it because the UK’s train design is stuck in the 1970s?

Imagine the scene in 10 years’ time – to get a seat on a train you need to get up before 6am and join a massive queue to get to work.

This isn’t a doomsday scenario – it’s a fact. Mass transit authorities’ thinking is stuck in the 1970s when many of their trains were built. And if they don’t catch up soon, we’ll all be left behind. It’s 2015 – do people really need restaurant cars or armrests to have a pleasant journey to work?

Train design is 40 years’ behind

People are habitual; commuting should be easy and not a chore. Getting on the train and finding a seat should be smooth. Why is it that some regular commuters selfishly keep laptops or bags on seats, holding everyone up as they slowly struggle to move everything away?

Changing the way seats are configured and looking at entrances could change this. Rather than packing as many seats into a carriage, why not look at comfortable standing alternatives for busy routes? After all, trains built in the 1970s and 80s weren’t designed for people on electronic devices, carrying rucksacks or reading e-books.

Some companies, such as First Great Western, have purchased new Hitachi trains like those used in Japan. But they’re even smaller than their InterCity 125 trains which already pack in people like sardines. The new trains also have smaller seats, narrower corridors and shorter carriages.

Surely, as more and more people use the train they should consider longer carriages, no first class on short routes, and seating that’s fit for working with laptops or tablets? Is it too much to ask for designers to use the route and see for themselves that the new trains on order are already our of date?

Why can’t we move with the times?

Could the train industry learn from the new iconic London Routemaster? It’s already a design classic, with bigger seats and upholstery that’ll stand the test of time. In short, it’s a bus that’s fit for the next 20 years.

In Europe and the US, the trains are roomy, air conditioned and have proper comfortable seats that allow you to work. Hundreds of billions have been invested into Britain’s rail industry in the past 30 years – UK designers should be talking to (and learning from) those in Germany who build and run trains to the highest standards.

As population grows in the UK so should the standards of our public transport systems. As one of the world’s leading innovation centres shouldn’t we be able to build our trains on home soil, within budget and to the highest standards of design so that they stand the test of time?

Andrew says:
1 October 2016

The biggest trouble with train design today on suburban services is the lack of doors which leads to long dwell time. On my very busy south east London line the badly designed coaches only have two doors per carriage whereas a minimum of 3 is required. The timetables are badly planned and the trains are not evenly spaced but bunched together which leads to severe overcrowding which leads to delays, in particular when Southeastern thinks it OK to run 6 coach trains in the rush hour.

Standing on these trains is very uncomfortable because there is nothing to easily hold on to or lean against.

Our trains are much slower than in the 1950s mainly due to poorly designed, overcrowded trains with long dwell times in stations.

So it’s the number of passengers that’s the problem really, Andrew, rather than the lack of doors or the number of carriages [are all the platforms long enough for longer trains?].

I think the timetabled bunching of trains on a dense network like south-east London is due to the stopping patterns, the capacity of the junctions, and the number of different termini served. I suspect the network is now at full capacity and will not be able to carry additional commuters so incoming residents of the new housing developments are in for a shock. Those who rely on a train on the inner London stretch of track will come of worse and will never get a seat and will often be prevented form boarding. Crossrail from Abbey Wood to Paddington in December 2018 will probably provide considerable relief initially but will obviously attract more commuters overall.

What we need is wider Trains, not more length , the whole system is still Victorian . Extra rows of seats. Aircraft are wide why not trains? Also have no terminals , trains should round and round.

Well, a cheeky answer is that there are no bridges and tunnels in the skies to limit the width of aeroplanes.

Trains are both wider and higher on the continent because – largely for military purposes – the railways were built to larger dimensions than the British lines which pre-dated them.

That great Victorian engineer I K Brunel built the Great Western Railway to the Broad Gauge dimensions which was 50% [approx] wider than the Standard Gauge. The GWR was superior in many respects because the wider tracks made for a smoother ride, higher speeds, and greater comfort. Unfortunately, most British railways were built to the Standard Gauge which eventually prevailed and the GWR had to convert to that size. Brunel’s legacy is still visible in the wider bridges and tunnels on the original GWR lines from London Paddington to the West of England and Wales. Some of the trains on the present Great Western are slightly wider than those on other lines and cannot run on or be transferred to other routes.

The idea of no terminals is actually rather nice. There’s too much rail infrastructure for that to happen with trains, but monorails could work rather nicely in that respect. Monorails are also elevated, so could run with a comparatively small footprint in cities requiring only 4′ x 4′ patch of ground every 50 yards for the concrete track supports. Monorails are ideal for cities, too, because large buildings could be subverted to stations, so travellers could embark and disembark without ever going outside.

Gerald, that’s a nice “thinking outside the box” (or outside the loading gauge) idea.

For these wider trains, we’ll need to acquire a national network of lightly graded routes with nice gentle curves that connects most of our major conurbations. Perhaps, the compulsory purchase of the existing motorway network would provide a nice starting point for this 😉