Voyages to the Interior (train and bus interiors, UK)

I’m off on a bit of tangent this week looking at some British public transport interior design. Well, you know, there have to be some advantages to writing your own blog, and if occasionally getting one’s transport design bugbears off your chest (see also the fate of Vauxhall Bus Station) isn’t one of them, I don’t know what is. Anyway, interior design isn’t all that far removed from transport moquettes or transport seating, and we’ll get to see some rather attractive bus interiors, so it’s not so far off the normal track for the blog.

Those stylish bus interiors tell us something rather interesting about the current state of passenger accommodation design in British public transport. It’s that while there’s a widespread belief that trains are a better quality product than buses, that’s not always the case. Bus operators have stolen a march on train operators on interior design. If it had any sense, the British railway industry would be paying more attention to British bus operators when it comes to providing a more attractive travelling environment for passengers.

Perhaps the reason it’s not is that the last time the British railway industry tried to import some thinking from the bus industry on a large scale, it ended up with the “Pacer” fleet of railbuses. Built in the 1980s as a cheap way of providing rural railways with new trains, these unlovely, underpowered, noisy, draughty and fragile trains were constructed by attaching bus bodies to a railway underframe. The results were exactly what you might expect.

Is it a train? Is it a bus? It's both - it's a Pacer. Photo by David Ingham from Bury, Lancashire, England (P4125130Uploaded by oxyman) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Is it a train? Is it a bus? Is it the reason that train operators never seem to look to the bus industry for best practice in anything? It’s all of those things – it’s a Pacer. Photo by David Ingham from Bury, Lancashire, England (P4125130Uploaded by oxyman) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Crucially, they had only four wheels per carriage (one axle at each end), instead of the usual eight wheels on two bogies. Thanks to this unusual wheel arrangement, Pacers had (and still have) trouble traversing tight curves and jointed track, unfortunately both key characteristics of the kind of railway line they were bound for. Much re-engineering later, they’re still in service to the dismay of many passengers, with improved seating and mechanical reliability, but the same rough riding characteristics. Luckily, it looks like they’re on their way out with the new Northern Rail franchise (see here), although if the replacement is re-engineered London Underground trains (yes, seriously, that’s an option) then passengers might find themselves out of the frying pan and into the fire.

I reckon the railway industry has never forgiven the bus industry for the Pacer farrago, and has never again looked there to see if there are any transferable lessons. In doing so, it’s fallen behind best practice in passenger accommodation design. I wrote a letter on this subject a couple of months back that the nice people at Passenger Transport magazine were kind enough to print, but I thought that exploring the issue on the blog would allow for some photos to illustrate the point.

In recent years, many bus operators have introduced enhanced bus services in a move to increase revenue. Spotting that bus patronage was plateauing on certain routes, but believing that there was untapped potential to attract more passengers with a better bus offer, these forward-thinking operators introduced a better quality of travelling environment to attract new passengers.

The first time this really got the notice of the wider industry was in 2003 when Blazefield introduced leather seating on the upper deck of its new buses for the Harrogate-Leeds Route 36. There was a degree of scepticism about this at the time (as mentioned in this news story covering a later upgrade of the same route). The seats would be vandalised, everyone thought (but they weren’t). The scheme would never work (but it did). Any extra revenue wouldn’t cover the additional costs (but it did).

What had happened was that a bus company had responded to the fact that the interiors of cars had, as usual, been continually improving over the years, with even the most humble small family car sporting an interior that wouldn’t have disgraced a high-end saloon car a couple of decades earlier. The bus industry, however, hadn’t really changed its travelling environment to keep up. This was a time when new low-floor buses in London, for instance, were still entering service with bench seating, sporting rails across the top at just the right height to bang into my backbone.

The next operator to take on the idea of enhanced bus interiors on was Stagecoach, which introduced its Stagecoach Gold (originally Goldline) brand in 2007.

Photo by Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Inside a Stagecoach Gold bus. If you haven’t been on a bus in a while, this might surprise you. I particularly like the fleur-de-lys flooring, but most passengers are probably more impressed with the leather seating. Photo by Ed Webster [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Stagecoach identified bus routes where an upgraded quality of vehicle could drive revenue growth, and converted them to Gold standard. These were buses on regular bus routes, looking nothing like a bus had ever looked before. Large, comfortable seats were finished in hand stitched leather throughout. Flooring was smart, and enhanced with fleur-de-lys, the internationally recognised symbol of poshness. Free wi-fi was available, and a guarantee of ticket refunds if the service ran late. The drivers were specially picked to operate the route and trained in both customer care and advanced driving techniques, to give a smoother ride.

I can’t stress enough that the Stagecoach Gold services are existing bus routes upgraded to drive revenue growth, not brand new routes with exclusive/premium ticketing. There’s a Stagecoach Gold route not too far from where I live (it’s the Camberley-Aldershot Route 1 if you’re interested), and I can use it with my existing Stagecoach Megarider area season ticket, at no additional cost. And sometimes I do. It’s lovely.

More recently, the idea has been adopted by Arriva with its Sapphire brand, which also features charging points at seat for all your electronic gizmos (see inside a Sapphire bus here). Arriva is not alone, either. Several smaller operators have also introduced buses with high-specification interiors. trentbarton has developed a nice line in wood-effect flooring on its buses, along with other luxurious design touches (there’s a photo a bit later on of one of its Indigo route buses). It might sound a bit odd, but it looks great, and convinces passengers that they’re experiencing something special when on the bus.

Meanwhile, what was the railway industry doing to replicate this initiative? Um, very little. Sure, First Great Western had introduced leather seating on some of its trains in 2006-08…but only in First Class. So to travel on the same sort of seat you would soon get throughout a Stagecoach Gold bus for the price of a regular ticket, on the train you had to buy a First Class ticket at considerable extra cost (First Great Western has  just launched the latest refresh of the design and the seating looks like some of the smartest in the rail industry; nice accommodation if you can get it…).

Photo by Simon Pielow [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Leather seating in First Great Western’s First Class carriages. Photo by Simon Pielow [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Meanwhile, in First Great Western Standard Class, it was moquettes for all. Not that I don’t appreciate moquettes, as you know, but it says something about train operator thinking, or lack of thinking, that Standard Class passengers didn’t get leather seats too, when their counterparts on several bus routes were.

In fact, right across the spectrum of train operators, standard class passenger accommodation has remained basically unchanged for the last 20 years. The colour palettes (moquettes, carpets, grab rails and wall coverings) have altered to reflect changing tastes and to accommodate the needs of passengers who are blind or partially sighted, and the luggage racks look a little more sophisticated than the last of British Rail’s models, but otherwise a time-travelling passenger from 20 years ago would feel right at home in a new train interior, so little has actually changed in terms in underlying design. Amongst other design crimes, it’s all too common to find modern train interiors with exposed bolts attaching seats to the floor, bare fluorescent tube lighting, no wi-fi or chargeable wi-fi (come on folks, that’s like charging for air to breathe as far as the Young People are concerned), and no air conditioning, like on Southeastern’s metro Class 376s. Apparently frequent stops with doors opening and closing makes it difficult to provide air-conditioning on trains, though it doesn’t seem to be a problem for many buses, which do a similar stop-start job.

Yes, it’s surprising but true – in Britain buses have stolen a march on trains when it comes to the quality of the travelling environment. That’s despite the fact that bus operators have proved that better quality passenger transport vehicles drives revenue growth. The conservatism of train interior design also fails to take into account the fact that the interiors of cars have also been continually improving.

Interior of a trentbarton Indigo bus.  It's a regular city bus, but it has leather seats, air conditioning (even though train operators seem to think this is impossible for a public transport vehicle that makes frequent stops), and a very smart wood-effect floor. In other words, things you wouldn't dream of finding on most urban trains. Photo by
Interior of a trentbarton Indigo bus. It’s a regular city bus, but it has leather seats, air conditioning (even though train operators seem to think this is impossible for a public transport vehicle that makes frequent stops), and a very smart wood-effect floor. In other words, things you wouldn’t dream of finding on most urban trains. Photo by Matt Buck [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

To really hammer home this growing quality gap, let’s go back to my local Stagecoach Gold route between Camberley and Aldershot. There’s also a train service which runs between Camberley and Aldershot, run by another Stagecoach company, South West Trains (so it’s not as if it would be difficult to share best practice). That route has used several different train types over the years, but is currently in the hands of a fleet of Class 456 trains which are being refurbished to match South West Trains’ fleet of Class 455s. The Class 456 refurbishment is too new for share-able photos to be available, but the Class 455 refurbished interiors are virtually identical and look like this:

By Peter Skuce (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside a refurbished South West Trains Class 455 train. Photo by Peter Skuce (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The refurbishment provides an interior incomparably better than the one it replaced on the train, but it doesn’t really match up to the rather more refined accommodation on one of the Stagecoach Gold buses also operating between Aldershot and Camberley, with their leather seats, free wi-fi and so on:

Inside an Aldershot-Camberley Stagecoach Gold bus. Photo by Arriva436 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Inside an Aldershot-Camberley Stagecoach Gold bus. Photo by Arriva436 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not entirely clear why train operators haven’t kept up with best practice in the bus industry. Train operators generally reckon their product is a cut above that offered on buses (suggesting that they’re not always paying attention), so you’d expect trains to emulate the quality of something like Stagecoach Gold or Arriva Sapphire.

Perhaps train operators think that leather seating and high quality interiors would get vandalised, though the experience of the bus operators suggest this is not the case. Maybe they don’t want the extra revenue in case they end up having to share it with the government (you can thank the labyrinthine arrangements underpinning the British railway franchising regime for that ridiculous state of affairs). Maybe they don’t want the extra passengers – after all, overcrowding is becoming a serious issue on many train services. Perhaps it’s because, unlike their buses, transport operators don’t own their fleets of trains, so they are less invested in making them as comfortable as the best buses are.

British trains are owned by rolling stock leasing companies, which rent them out to British train operators. It’s another oddity of the British rail privatisation structure, for reasons which are too complicated to get into here. The rolling stock leasing companies’ customers are the train operators, not the actual passengers who travel on those trains. As such, I suspect that developing a class-leading passenger environment isn’t uppermost in rolling stock company thinking, which is more likely to be dominated by factors such as ease of maintenance/cleaning, and the cost of components. Those are important considerations, and I’m not ignorant nor dismissive of them, but when cost and maintenance drive design, you tend to get something that looks a bit, well, cheap and unrefined.

This link, for example, will take you to an album of pictures of the interior of a Class 321 train, which rolling stock leasing company Eversholt launched in summer 2013 (see here for the official announcement) as an example of the sort of vision it had for the refurbishment of the rest of the Class 321s. It’s hardly inspiring, is it? There are leather seats…but only in First Class of course. Standard class is all brash moquettes, exposed bolts, cheap-looking laminates, and industrial looking flooring.

Without too much imagination however, you could imagine a Stagecoach Gold / Arriva Sapphire / trentbarton Indigo version of a train which would be rather better. It would have leather seating throughout (for all passengers, not just in First Class), a clever lighting scheme (LEDs in the ceiling, with spot lighting for seats, and underseat lighting for ambience), free wi-fi, power sockets or USB charging points, and some sort of smart flooring that looked less like the industrial rubber or flotex-type stuff most trains sport. Would it be too much to hope for seats that line up with windows, or vice-versa, whichever is easiest? You could even identify some routes for such trains to operate on. London Victoria – Brighton limited stop services, and the London King’s Cross – Cambridge non-stop service, are two.

There are hints that the railway industry is beginning to think about what could be achieved with train interiors. The launch of the Hitachi AT100 and AT200 trains in July 2014 saw passenger saloons sporting design features much more modern and attractive than most trains (see an album here). However, it remains to be seen whether these concepts are translated into reality now that a fleet order for the AT200 has been placed for the new Scotrail franchise. The cynic in me worries that like concepts at a motor show, the most exciting design elements will never make it to the production version of the vehicle.

Meanwhile, London Underground has employed a design consultancy, and a very good one at that, in the shape of PriestmanGoode, to develop its “New Tube for London”, a concept for the next generation of tube trains. Although London Underground will not the build the trains itself, it has made it clear that it expects manufacturers to respect the general design PriestmanGoode has developed.

The interior of the proposed New Tube for London. © Transport for London via this flickr album
The interior of the proposed New Tube for London. © Transport for London via this flickr album

This follows on from the New Bus for London, developed by London Underground’s sister company London Buses. As regular readers will be well aware, I’m not a big fan of the New Bus for London, which replicates several of the design flaws of the old Routemaster buses, apparently just for the sake of having something that can be hailed as the New Routemaster. The New Tube for London is much better, taking cues from the past without slavishly recreating it just for the sake of it. About the only aspect I’m not so keen on is the small square windows, which seem to be overly influenced by the small square windows of the 1938 tube stock. It seems like a retrograde step compared to the larger windows on recent tube trains (the 1992 stock has never been bettered in this regard), just for the sake of having something which links to London Underground’s heritage.

At least London Underground is making the effort to put some hard thought into the design of the passenger environment, just as bus operators have been doing on their enhanced services. That leaves mainline train operators lagging behind the times, and current expectations of passengers. I wonder how long that’s really sustainable for?

3 thoughts on “Voyages to the Interior (train and bus interiors, UK)

  1. The worst feature of trains built in the last 40 years the seating layout with blind seats and no luggage space between seat backs. Even if passengers spend most of their time checking their mobile phones, they still like to look out and see where they are.

    What is needed is a seat design specifically for back-to-back or back-to-bulkhead fixing, which could be lighter than a seat designed for a unidirectional configuration and requiring a substantial frame.

    The next worst feature is the 1/3:2/3 door layout which gives the heating and ventilation system too much work to do and introduces draughts at every station. An end door configuration with vestibule doors would be preferable except on metro type services.

    The poor station dwell time of end-door vehicles probably has more to do with the bottleneck inside the vestibule rather than the position of the doors as such. If the vestibules on, say, Electostars, were at the ends it would probably make no significant difference to station dwell times on the longer-distance routes where many of them operate. It would also reduce the weight of the vehicles slightly as end-door openings do not weaken the bodyshell structure.

    1. I take the point. I know why train operators choose the 1/3:2/3 door layout, for the reasons you identify. But it is draughty as you say, and it breaks up the saloon into a very ‘bitty’ layout which always seems less than ideal to me. And as for the seat/window alignment problem which has been going on for decades now on trains, you’d think by now someone would have cracked this! I was amused that in the recent Scotrail franchise announcement, there was a big play made that trains on scenic routes would be refurbished to align seats with windows…

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