/ 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Is modern train design already out of date?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?


Peak demand is the problem, on both rail and road. It is time we started to seriously look at staggering working hours. The simple way to make better use of existing rail and road capacity. Oh, and we could also relocate workplaces away from the heavily congested areas to reduce the commuting distance necessary.
We need to think about more innovative ideas than simply adding more roads, more and bigger trains and infrastructure, used for a limited part of the day only. it’s an expensive and inefficient use of resources and staff, isn’t it?


The money might be better spent on cutting down our dependence on travel, both public and private transport, especially for travel to work. Is it that difficult to vary working hours to spread the load? Employees might well be amenable to the opportunity to change their hours and avoid travel problems.

I question whether making commuting easier should be the target. I believe that we need more people living near where they work, so they can walk or cycle, and do so in safety.

In his introduction, Ian suggests the possibility of ‘comfortable standing alternatives’. I don’t mind if Ian wants to stand, but packing people in will encourage the spread of viral diseases. Even if we don’t consider the wellbeing of travellers, time off work through illness has financial implications for employers.

Gerry says:
3 November 2015

The Hitachi trains do have longer carriages, do you mean longer trains overall?

I’m not sure it’s the trains that are the problem, as your featured comment says, it’s peak demand. It’s also people. Social idiosyncrasies and a traditional service pattern means there’s not too much more that can be done to tackle this however.

Improving trains is an ongoing process, they can be specced any way you choose. Take thameslink. New trains coming soon but they will be focused more on standing passengers. This is fine from say St Albans to Croydon, but for anyone further out, the trains are terribly uncomfortable. Considering these trains are designed specifically for the route, it’s a shame they haven’t provided a variety of standard class configurations to give some table backs and arm rests to people travelling from Bedford or Brighton.

I drive to work now and it’s just as bad, despite having a job I can easily do from home. Office working is fine but management culture is set in stone for people in all but the creative industries where you have to be seen.


We travelled from North Wales to Switzerland by train, recently, and it was a revelation. The best trains were Eurostar and Swiss; DBahn was a let down, although Thales was pretty good. The Swiss mainline trains are double decker, with first class boarding on the level, meaning easy roll-on for cases. But I’m afraid I disagree strongly with Neil when he says “in Europe and the US trains are roomy, air conditioned and have proper comfortable seats that allow you to work”. We didn’t travel on any train with larger or more comfortable seats than Virgin’s West coast service or Eurostar, and some were decidedly less pleasant. We don’t commute, of course, so we know nothing about that side of things.


I’m not sure what the term “design classic” means with reference to the dire bus which Boris Johnson has inflicted on London. Its seats may be larger than on proper buses but they don’t offer more space for passengers – they simply mean that your knees are squashed in (and the stupidly low ceiling means that you bang your head every time you stand up even when you’re average height).
When you look at the lower deck, the impression you get is that someone has been to some kind of second hand furniture shop and picked up a bunch of not quite matching chairs and chucked them in in the forlorn hope that they might just fit.
The tiny windows make journeys even on a sunny day a gloomy experience and the fact that they don’t open makes the bus unbearably hot and stuffy at pretty much any time of the year.
I’m sure that the LED lights are energy efficient but they also make the bus gloomy and unwelcoming on darker days. The energy saving created by not adding a few more LEDs is completely wiped out by the fact that the supposed hybrid nature of the bus never works – I travel regularly on the Alexander Dennis Enviro 400 hybrids and the Thomas Heatherwick London bus and the very obvious difference is that the Enviro 400 is silent at bus stops; the diesel cuts out and the electric motor is used as the bus pulls away from the stop. By contrast the broken Heatherwick Bus makes an intolerable level of noise whenever it stops.
I don’t know what the Hitachi trains are like on GWR but they would have to be really bad to be worse than the bad joke Boris has played (at massive cost) on the people of London.


On the Continent it is not unusual to see double decker trains, although highly impractical in this country, it is one solution to accommodate the flow of human commuters during rush hour.

Overcrowding during rush hour is a global problem and has led to the reintroduction of ‘Ladies Only’ carriages in many countries, owing to the rise in female harassment by male passengers in tightly packed carriages. The problem is particularly grim in Japan, an example of how bad it can get can be witnessed @ youtube.com -Japanese Commuter Train In The Morning. In August this year, Jeremy Corbyn said he would consult on the option of introducing women only carriages to help reduce harassment. The last ladies only trains in the UK were withdrawn in 1977 due to equality legislation which prevented gender specific provisions.

Apart from introducing more carriages which would mean constructing longer platforms at most stations, and more people being encouraged to work from home on certain days of the week, alternating with fellow workers, which may ease some of the flow, and City dwellers cycling shorter distances as they do in Holland, the immediate outcome looks pretty dire, but with the population predicted to increase in the next 10 years a solution needs to be found. It seems ludicrous that between 10am and 3pm when I use my local train, carriages are only half full and I feel sorry for the people who have no other option than to suffer the congestion during rush hour periods and are charged extortionate fares for ‘the privilege’.


Only half full? that seems positively crowded for off peak trains on many London routes. I gather that in the morning peak some trains can be filled to 200% of the seated capacity and the network is very inefficient and inflexible in responding to the daily issues when ‘bean counter’ mentality presumes that you can operate a system flawlessly demanding over 90% of capacity/utilisable resources.

Ironically the old slam door trains had more seats, and could be filled and emptied faster simply because of the way they were built. Only 12 people needed to get out or in through each door – lined up with a compartment with 6 seats per side (at a squeeze).

What did revolutionise things was Thameslink, closing 6 platforms at Holborn Viaduct (and now generating revenue from commercial use of the land) closing 4 at St Pancras, with now 2 closed at Moorgate plus more intensive use of 4 vice 5 platforms at Blackfriars. Trains with would sit occupying space for typically 10 minutes before going out in the direction from which they came in – less filled then ran through the core and could do this with a far higher frequency. Fewer trains, better used, on fewer tracks.

Crossrail is about to do this between 2 other overloaded London commuter termini

We need to look at some other connections – I’d suggest a Bermondsey to Battersea route to reprise the District Railway but on the South Bank , and in the same vein incorporate a core route for utilities alongside the rail route – Stations at Battersea Power Station/Nine Elms, Vauxhall (for those who no longer get a service to Victoria), Waterloo, Blackfriars, London Bridge (all reducing churn at Clapham Junction and other stations where previously commuters changed trains) and out through the lands at New Cross, in many cases able to take services which used to have alternate trips between London Bridge and Victoria, as a simple loop.

Euston to Waterloo is another – barely 2 Km between the stations, and ideally doing a Musee d’Orsay conversion on Charing Cross. The local Watford Junction services could be removed from Euston terminus and a new station below connect at last Euston Square with Euston, those local trains would then replace the inner local services from Waterloo to perhaps East Putney, or even Wimbledon via East Putney, with other options to take the stopping local trains from Milton Keynes to places South of the Thames, or simply loop back to Watford via Clapham. A short route intensively used , and with an interchange in reserve for Farringdon on the Crossrail spine


You have some good ideas Dave. It seems Crossrail 2 is the only big scheme in the capital likely to get approval in the next few years. You should read the London Reconnections website.


New iconic ‘New Routemaster@ jaw drop! It is as far away from the original Routemaster as you might manage if you actually set out to make make the antitheses of the original’s well conceived design, which has – over 60 years, seen the bus length extended – twice, the prime mover upgraded – at least twice, and the transmission also changed. All this on a vehicle which drastically reduced the tare weight through being the first truly monocoque mass produced bus used in London. The original Routemaster (4 bays) weight in at under 8 tons, and the New Routemaster…. the Stretch XRM (5 bay) vehicles I suspect can be plated to carry more passengers too for a lower GVW.

The Routemaster also included a key ‘London’ requirement in its design – just as the London Taxi spec goes for a vehicle which is highly manouevrable, so the RM can dance through congested streets and tight spaces. The design of London bus stations currently is dictated by the wide swept space that a New Routemaster requires to swing in and out, even compared to other buses in use.

TfL London Rail actually demonstrated a commonsense approach with the fleet of trains ordered for LOROL services, by having lockable, opening windows included in the spec, despite the trains being air conditioned. One of the key things that makes or breaks a heat transfer system is the ability of the condenser (the place that heat removed from the place which needs cooling is sent to be dumped) has to be operating where the surrounding air is cool enough to take away the heat coming in.

With an overheated condenser the system then begins to work in reverse, taking heat in at the condenser and dumping it out at the place you are trying to cool down. I’ve yet to see any definitive answers to that roastmaster problem but options might include the external air temperature created by the heat island effect of the hard landscaping and paved areas in Central London and the lack of vegetation, or even simply water and a breeze to cool things down thus the fans draw in hot air in a vain attempt to cool down the condenser on the bus. Another option is that the particle laden air builds up a blockage on the air filters on the condenser cooling intake, and dramatically reduces the efficiency of the system. Pulling a bus out of service and than testing in in the shaded and usually cooler location of the bus workshops won’t replicate the on-street conditions. The pragmatic approach is of course, to have opening windows, and also to recognise that most of the passengers will be dressed to walk to & from the bus in the prevailing weather conditions, and all they really need is a light touch of heat or cooling to keep them comfortable in the clothing they are wearing for the conditions outside….

.Railwaywriter says:
4 November 2015

Your correspondent has had a bad journey to work and takes it out on the keyboard.
Longer carriages or trains are impossible here in the north with our single-class suburban trains limited by the track and platforms cut back in the 1980s to save money. Double deck trains are impossible due to Victorian infrastructure restricting height and width enjoyed by our European cousins.
We don’t have restaurant cars either, just a trolley for longer distance services. The interiors of new trains are smaller because of the tilt angle for higher speed running.
Just be grateful you have a modern train to get to work. Ours are over 30 years old


In terms of design itself, it really is a shame that double-deckers I’ve enjoyed in other countries are out of the question due to infrastructure, but something that could ease the strain and would be very easy to do would be the abolition of first class during peak hours.

It’s depressing to see people uncomfortably rammed into carriages (often short-formed services) every day, even though there are seats and extra space available. I’ve witnessed train staff attempt to fine people forced into first class who quite simply have nowhere else to go. Common sense has to prevail at some stage.


I agree, newly designed trains could compartmentalise first class carriages, which would involve simply surveying the number of first class passengers using them on a regular basis during rush hour times which would free up more seats for 2nd class commuters and keep the 1st class passengers separated, all within the same carriage. I’m sure train companies already have the statistics available so it wouldn’t be too difficult to implement at design stage.