The Truth, or Something Beautiful (on the confusion of public transport with tourism, history or character)

I’m treating myself to another of my intermittent rant-y articles; it’s only fair to warn you. The subject is one I remain somewhat conflicted about. It’s the ongoing confusion between public transport’s day job and its heritage, character and tourism aspects, and what that means for the public transport industry, and the cities in which it operates.

I first became aware of the issue many years ago when I was a rail officer for Surrey County Council. You might be wondering what a county council would need with a rail officer, and several of my colleagues there would have agreed with you. But it was a far-off time of financial largesse on the part of local authorities, and it seemed like a good idea. At the time, one of the big issues on Surrey’s rail network was the replacement of the ageing fleet of slam-door trains, which served the main lines and some outer-suburban routes, and which had been introduced in the 1950s and 60s. They were completely unsuited to modern train operations, offering a passenger environment entirely out-of-step with turn of the century passenger expectations, being draughty, cold in the winter (unless boiling hot for no apparent reason as they sometimes were), not air-conditioned, rough riding, and having no on-board passenger information facilities beyond an often inaudible PA. They were also safety nightmares, with no proper head or tail lights for most of their lives, and poor crashworthiness, as the Clapham and Purley train crashes had already tragically proved. They also had manually operated slam doors, which on some trains opened directly onto seating bays, and which could be opened while the train was at speed.

But most of the correspondence I received on the subject was from a select band of commentators who wanted the County Council to oppose the slam-door trains’ replacement on the grounds that the old trains were historically interesting and had character, while the new ones weren’t and didn’t. (Making marginally more sense was another group, cyclists, who liked the large and otherwise long-since-rendered-pointless luggage vans on the slam-door trains, as they made convenient bike stores, even though the critical issue at the time was the need for more seats for commuters.) Try as I might, by letter or even at the occasional dreaded (by me anyway) council-organised Rail Forum, I could not convince such people that new trains would be an improvement, even though for most ‘normal’ passengers they certainly would be. Rail forums, by their nature, attracted people who put transport’s historical role and character before its actual day job of providing a suitable service to modern travellers.

Which is the best train for the modern railway? The one on the right? Not according to some people; they wanted to keep slam-door trains like the one on the left. The slam-door train is a preserved one - this photo was taken in 2014. Photo by Lukes_photos [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page.
Which is the best train for the modern railway? The one on the right? Not according to some people; they wanted to keep slam-door trains like the one on the left. The slam-door train is a preserved one – this photo was take in 2014. Photo by Lukes_photos [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page.

The truth is that in order to do its job most effectively, modern public transport might not look as beautiful as old-fashioned transport, it might lack character, and it might not have the charm of buses, trains and trams from yesteryear. Sometimes, however, decision-makers overseeing transport networks get confused about the actual day job of public transport and set an agenda which doesn’t put public transport in its proper role, but seeks instead to require it do things like being characterful, or historic, or appealing to tourists.

A city’s transport network can clearly have significant tourist potential. There is no better way to see a place than from the top deck of a double-decker bus, in towns and cities which have them. London’s Docklands Light Railway is another favourite with tourists, not least because of the sheer joy you can witness amongst young (and sometimes not so young) passengers sitting at the front of the driverless trains and pretending to drive them. Ditto Tyne and Wear’s Metro, where the driving cab is only one-third the width of a train’s front end, and there’s a seat in the free space at the front.

However, the tourist potential of such services isn’t their primary purpose. It’s a useful by-product that can help fill off-peak and weekend seats. Keeping towns and cities efficiently moving is a public transport network’s proper job. Problems set in when people starting thinking that the tourism, historicism or characterfulness of public transport are its chief selling points. At that point, you start demanding the retention of ancient slam-door trains instead of their replacement with new ones.

In many cities, transport’s tourist potential is channelled into special sight-seeing routes (open-topped sight-seeing buses and the like) with separate fares regimes, which keeps the issue in check. But at other times it creeps into a city’s main transport network. Sometimes this doesn’t matter too much. Take San Francisco’s historic cable cars, operated as part of the public transport network by city transport operator MUNI. Their routes are paralleled by faster and more efficient alternatives so the absolute madness they represent (when you stop to think about it; passengers hang off the sides for goodness’ sake) is reasonably well contained.

San Francisco cable car 14 giving tourists one of the world's genuinely remarkable public transport experiences. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page.
San Francisco cable car 14 giving tourists one of the world’s genuinely remarkable public transport experiences. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page.

In Lisbon, Portugal, it’s a different matter. There, historic tramcars are a very real part of operator Carris’s public transport network, winding through narrow streets where there is no easy public transport alternative. With my geek hat on, they’re brilliant. My poor partner had to put up with me bouncing on and off them when we visited Lisbon. They’re ancient, full of wooden fittings, and packed with character. But I can imagine that if I was a Lisbon resident, perhaps one with small children, heavy shopping, or not so steady on my feet any more, they would be a nightmare. With huge steps to get in and out of them, and wooden seats, they don’t exactly meet modern expectations of step-free, simple and comfortable public transport. When they’re waiting at the end of a route, in front of a modern building, you really do begin to wonder what sort of image Lisbon’s public transport is projecting of the city.

Lisbon tram at Martim Moniz. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album.
Lisbon tram at Martim Moniz. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album.

Why does this matter? Because a city or town’s character, its brand if you like, is often defined primarily (in visual terms at least), by its transport network. Take a town like Taunton, Somerset. Its bespoke “the buses of Somerset” network (by Best Impressions) is the only thing which gives the town specific visual unity. The shops all look different, because they are different, a riot of chains visually screaming at you for your custom. The road signage is consistent across town, Calvert and Kinneir’s finest, but of course it’s not unique to Taunton; it’s a national signage scheme deliberately intended to look the same all over the country. But Taunton’s buses (the vast majority, anyway, apart from the odd independent operator) all run in the green the Buses of Somerset branding, which is repeated on the specially designed bus stop flags across town, and on the publicity you can pick up at various places. As far as Taunton has one, the Buses of Somerset is also its corporate identity. The same goes for Brighton, the Isle of Wight, Winchester, Harrogate…

An example of Taunton’s attractive “the buses of Somerset” visual identity. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album.

It’s a recent example, on a smaller scale, of the grand-daddy of such schemes, Frank Pick’s branding of London through its transport network. London Transport’s typeface, Johnston Sans, is still London’s handwriting. The London Transport roundel is graphic shorthand for London itself, instantly recognisable and identifiable the world over in terms of the city it represents.

So if your transport network is a key part of your city’s identity, what does it say about your city when a significant part of your transport system isn’t modern, efficient, comfortable or easy to use, because instead it’s being ‘historic’ and ‘characterful’? It might impress the daytrippers and tourists, but what does it do for those who stay longer and experience a city more deeply? Or those who live there all year round?

Perhaps it sends the message that public transport is a bit jokey, not to be taken seriously, not an essential component of modern living, but something which is trading on an outmoded past. You’ll understand how that worries me.

By far the worst recent offender in confusing public transport with tourism and historicism must be ex-London mayor Boris Johnson, who has thankfully left London only to continue his helium balloon-like and inexplicable rise in national government. During his time in London he oversaw delivery of the cable car at North Greenwich, surely the most useless addition to London’s transport network of which it is possible to conceive. It is a tourist attraction, no more, no less, but somehow muddled up by Johnson into being part of London’s transport network. It even appears on the Tube map, as unwelcome an interloper as a drunken uncle at a small church wedding, and about as much use, swaying unsteadily and staggering backwards and forwards without ever getting anywhere useful. Most offensively, money was taken out of the London Rail budget to pay for it.

A fun tourist ride that's pretending to be part of London's transport network. Photo by Aleem Yousaf (Crystal and Emirates Cable Car) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A fun tourist ride that’s pretending to be part of London’s transport network. Photo by Aleem Yousaf (Crystal and Emirates Cable Car) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson’s greatest crime against transport was, of course, the New Bus for London a.k.a. the New Routemaster. There was nothing necessarily wrong with the idea of a developing a new London-specific bus, following the withdrawal of London’s original Routemasters, except for the fact that it was always going to be more expensive to buy than a standard bus which benefits from larger order volumes to reduce costs. But because Johnson saw the London bus network from his own buffoonish viewpoint, remembering the jolly japes to be had in jumping on and off the open platforms of the original Routemasters, he asked entirely the wrong question. Instead of asking “How can we design a new bus for London?”, he instead asked, “How can we design a new Routemaster?”. He wanted historicism and swinging sixties character, instead of the best bus for modern London. From that point on, the design was compromised.

Old and New Routemasters together, with any luck marking their last appearance in this blog. Photo by Au Morandarte from London, Middlesex, England (Trafalgar Niners.) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Old and New Routemasters together, with any luck marking their last appearance in this blog. Photo by Au Morandarte from London, Middlesex, England (Trafalgar Niners.) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The slavish need to create a Routemaster for the modern day meant that not only did it inherit a rear platform from the Routemaster, but it repeated many of its other design drawbacks. The top deck is by far the worst. At the back, a domed roof (á la old Routemaster) means that seats underneath have insufficient head height and you can’t see out of the windows. At the front, the need to make the top deck look Routemaster-y means small windows rather than the tall panoramic ones which grace most proper modern double deckers. The New Routemaster fails even at delivering for tourists, as you can’t see out of them nearly so well as regular buses. Meanwhile, downstairs, the open rear platform needed supervision by a conductor, adding to the costs of New Routemaster operation. Because there were to be no conductors at night, or at all on some routes, the open platform is closed off by a door while the bus is moving if there is no conductor on board, so it was pointless half the time, anyway. Having proved too costly, conductors have now been removed from all New Routemaster-operated routes, entirely negating the rear platform  concept.

London buses have front and middle doors as standard, one more than most buses manage with, so the desire to have a groovy open rear platform added a third entrance onto the bus. The New Routemaster also has a rear staircase to go with its rear door, in case you wanted to fall down the stairs and straight out into the road through an open platform, making two staircases in total.

The upper deck of a New Routemaster, looking towards the rear. The back seat on the right is the worst offender in terms of headroom and ability to see out of the bus. David Anstiss [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The upper deck of a New Routemaster, looking towards the rear. The back seat on the right is the worst offender in terms of headroom and ability to see out of the bus. David Anstiss [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

London has somehow ended up with 1,000 buses, all of which have claustrophobic upper decks, and lower decks where ridiculous amounts of space are wasted by additional doors and staircases that aren’t really needed. This is at a time when increasing numbers of passengers are elderly, and tend to be grateful for all the step-free lower deck seating they can get. It’s all because Johnson got confused between the tourist-y potential of a jolly new Routemaster because the old ones had lots of ‘character’, and the need for a new bus that most efficiently meets the current needs of London’s bus passengers. Many of the smaller details on the New Routemaster are exquisite, and the build quality is excellent, which makes it all the more sad that they are wasted on an irredeemably flawed vehicle. Johnson touted the potential for such buses to be ordered for other cities at home or even abroad. Not a single order outside London has ever been placed.

Although Johnson is far and away the most high-profile person confused about what public transport is there to do, smaller-scale examples crop up across the transport industry from time to time. It’s these that cause me to be the most conflicted. I’m talking about things like painting modern buses and trains in heritage colour schemes to celebrate some illustrious predecessor company.

The geek in me loves to see a bus or train in vintage colours. The hard-headed part of me wonders what sort of message it sends to non-geek transport users who (I have to remind myself) are actually the vast majority.

Ryde St John's Road station on the Isle of Wight's Island Line in 2008. Trains are (more or less) in vintage London Transport colours, and the station has 1950s-style totem signage. Photo by OLU [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Ryde St John’s Road station on the Isle of Wight’s Island Line in 2008. Trains are (more or less) in vintage London Transport colours, and the station has 1950s-style totem signage. Photo by OLU [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s fun for a transport enthusiast to go on the Isle of Wight’s Island Line and see ancient ex-London Underground trains restored to vintage London Underground appearance, serving stations with vintage-style British Railways totem signage. How amusing of GB Railfreight to paint their brand new freight locomotive in old-style British Railways two-tone green, or for Great Western Railway to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the InterCity 125 by painting powercars into British Rail blue and grey, or Intercity ‘Swallow’ livery. It adds a bit of interest to Brighton’s streets to see Stagecoach has painted a modern low-floor bus into Southdown colours.

Stagecoach bus in Southdown 100th anniversary colours. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page.
Stagecoach bus in Southdown 100th anniversary colours. The people waiting at the bus stop don’t seem to be very impressed. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page.

But where does it all end? Don’t even get me started on the Lymington ‘heritage’ branch line fiasco. And what do non-geeks make of it? In other words, the regular travellers who the public transport industry is trying to keep out, or tempt out, of their cars. Do they notice at all? If it’s true that passengers or potential passengers don’t notice what colour their bus and train is painted, why do it? And if they do notice, what are these examples of historic paint schemes saying? That things were better in the old days? That modern public transport looks ugly? After all, if a vintage visual identity was less attractive than the modern one, you wouldn’t deface your bus or train with it, would you? Taking off my geek hat, I know that Stagecoach’s modern corporate bus livery is much more attractive and appropriate to today’s bus passengers (and potential bus passengers) than Southdown’s, however attractive my geeky core might find the vintage look. If you have to go historic, it can at least be done in a modern way, like Midland Mainline’s visual identity harking back to its illustrious streamline train forbears.

The town of Blackpool offers another approach. The town was the only one to keep its tramway when all the others were scrapped in the 1950s and 60s. With little serious investment in keeping it up to date, it retained its old-style trams and accidentally became a ridiculous but wonderful-for-geeks ‘heritage’ tramway. Having belatedly realised that running antiquated trams (some of them illuminated…) wasn’t really letting the tramway play a proper role in the town’s public transport system, Blackpool Council bid for government money in 2008 to bring in modern trams. Arriving in 2012, the new trams, like those on other modern tramways, are comfortable and easily accessible. For the tourists and geeks, the vintage trams operate a service over the core section of the tramway at weekends.

It took until 2012 before Blackpool Tramway became a proper part of the town's public transport, leaving its heritage trams to operate only on special services. Photo by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It took until 2012 before Blackpool Tramway became a proper part of the town’s public transport, leaving its heritage trams to operate only on special services. Photo by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, London had retained vintage Routemasters on a special tourist route, the core of Route 15, and it’s a shame Johnson didn’t leave it at that.

I realise I’ve mostly been talking about public transport vehicles. The situation with infrastructure is similar, though well-designed buildings are generally capable of being modified to keep them relevant to modern needs, which is less easy with old vehicles. However, there’s a strong strand of opinion out there that historic transport buildings are intrinsically better than modern ones. I suspect this is because such older buildings have more obvious charm and character than modern ones. It’s a view held by UK transport minister John Hayes (see this recent article for more) and, I think, wrongly puts character and historicism ahead of the needs of a modern transport system. It’s one of the reasons I’m sceptical over the idea of rebuilding the Euston Arch, of which Hayes is supportive. Couldn’t we rather have something that is as good as the Euston Arch, but which also serves the needs of modern travellers, rather than recreating a not particularly useful monument from the 19th Century?

As I said at the start of this article, I’m conflicted over this whole issue, because I love the geeky historical aspect of transport, and the charming and characterful quirks of bits of the transport network. But I also want public transport to fulfill its potential by being as effective and efficient as possible in meeting the needs of modern travellers. So, how much of a problem is the confusion of public transport’s heritage, historicism, and tourism role, with its day-to-day job of providing efficient and appropriate mass movement of people? Am I over-reacting? Or do we need to keep it in check? Would anyone care to weigh in on the matter? Feel free to leave a comment…

24 thoughts on “The Truth, or Something Beautiful (on the confusion of public transport with tourism, history or character)

  1. I didn’t realise quite what a waste of space (literally) the new bus for London was. Thankyou for pointing that out. However, my opinion of Boris has always been that he is an eejit and this only serves to raise him to the upper echelons of eejitdom.

    However, on a local transport note. The former strathclyde pte ‘modernised’ its orange and black livery to something resembling BR blood and custard of the 50s. It really did nothing for the fleet and on the class 334s they went a bit further and painted a turquoise stripe down the side… why???

  2. Unsatisfactory replacements for old designs seem to be a widespread issue in relation to public transport vehicles. There were also complaints by passengers using the Metropolitan Line when slam door stock was replaced by sliding door stock in 1960.

    Modern sliding-door trains were considered but rejected when the Southern suburban rolling stock was replaced in the mid-1950s. They would have been something like the stock built by the LMS for the Liverpool area in the 1930s, or the LNER’s trains for the Shenfield line, introduced in 1949.

    The reason why the slam door format was perpetuated was because of optimised seating capacity – about 100 seats per vehicle compared to about 70 on a sliding door vehicle, and station dwell times. In 1955, passengers were reasonably well disciplined, stood back at platforms when trains were approaching and closed the doors afterwards. 15 second station stops were possible at quieter stations. Now, the train has to stand for 15 seconds before the doors will open. These delays take their toll on schedules and the capacity of the line.

    The slam door trains were also easier to get on and off; the open door provided something to hold on to over the gap between platform and train. The handrails on the modern trains are too far inside to be able to reach.

    Current generations of sliding door trains remain a half-baked design in the UK. Continental trains sometimes have features such as handrails which swing out as the doors open, and retracting steps to close the gap. There has, apparently, been an increase in falls between platform and train since the introduction of the S-stock on the Metropolitan Line.

    Regarding historic transport systems, the Gothenburg tramways are a case in point. The livery seems not to have changed for the past 100 years. Half the fleet still dates from the 1960s. There was an attempt to replace them about ten years ago but the new vehicles proved so unsatisfactory that delivery was suspended about half-way through the order, thus they will soldier on for another few years yet, having been refurbished to keep them running. There is a museum fleet of historic cars which are used on summer weekends, but they are sometimes used on regular services, for example, when some streets are closed for sports events.

  3. Sorry, couldn’t disagree more – I’m proud to be a Luddite !

    There was nothing more civilised than a travelling in a 4CEP compartment, at least before their disastrous mid-eighties refurbishment with painted concrete seats. Even a high-density 4VEP was pleasant enough; you could usually get a comfortable, properly upholstered seat: having no wasted space allowed up to 98 of them in a carriage. As with all slammers, you didn’t have to knock knees with fellow passengers or disturb anyone (or be disturbed) for access or egress. Standing was tolerable because there were plenty of flat vertical surfaces to lean against.

    As for doors opening directly into the 4VEP passenger accommodation, that simply wasn’t a problem. With all seat bays next to a door, dwell time was far shorter than with today’s miserable replacements, and the last person didn’t leave the doors open to freeze the rest of carriage.

    But now I detest modern trains with their stuffy air conditioning and infernal Public Annoyance systems with their shrill, bossy, men-always-banned-in-the-interests-of-equality voices telling me for the millionth time not to leave my luggage unattended. (Invariably, the volume and repetition rate is inversely proportional to the usefulness of the message.) You can’t even fit a pilot case into the overhead rack, let alone a small suitcase.

    And it really wasn’t a such good idea to convert a job lot of ironing boards into hard seats on the 3759xx Electrostars, nor on the rest of fleet to fit hard knobs and grab rails anywhere you might want to lean against. Presumably the culprit was previously responsible for defensive-by-design street furniture used to make life unpleasant for elderly and homeless people. Modern trains are a classic case of Hutber’s Law, Improvement Means Worse.

    So unless it’s absolutely unavoidable (central London or airports) I never take the train these days. Shame also about the 3CEPs being withdrawn on the Lymington branch: I’ve just crossed it off my To Do list…

    1. The problem you are describing is essentially about the poor design, both in concept and detail, of the successors to the slam door trains on the outer-suburban and inter-city Southern routes.

      Your description of its shortcomings are all too familiar. However, some of the vehicles in the original Electrostars are quite comfortable apart from the tighter spacing of the seat bays – 1.8 metres instead of 1.93 on the mark 1 stock.

      The 1980s replacement stock on inner suburban routes was also poorly designed, primarily because it ignored London Transport’s experience with the design of trains for similar services. The station dwell time was due to the choice of a two-door design when the doors were only 1.2 metres wide, and originally, the opening obstructed with grab rails. Something like the Metropolitan Line A60 stock would have worked quite well at the time.

      Increasing volumes of traffic have meant that seating capacity has had to be reduced on longer-distance routes: hence the S-stock, a generally better design but which still has its faults, due to ignoring contemporary continental practice.

  4. My nomination for the prime illustration of this conundrum is the Circle/H&C platforms at Baker Street. The platforms are two narrow for today’s usage, the stairs can’t really cope either, and it would be basically impossible to achieve step-free access. So in summary, they’re completely unsuited to their current role. But try to do something – anything – about it and you’re destroying the principal survivor of the world’s first underground railway.

    On a reasonably related issue, the cause of the stepping distance issues mentioned in a previous comment is the lowering of the floor (compared to previous sub-surface stock) to achieve the same level as platforms.

    And on an unrelated note, Southern slam-door trains were awful, especially VEPs, for all the reasons mentioned in the blog article.

    1. The Southern slam door trains were a mixed bag, apart from the VEP type, of which there were unfortunately large numbers.

      The CEP type, as built for the Ramsgate and Dover electrification in 1960, were nothing more than an adaptation of the 1951 design BR standard steam stock used on long-distance routes. With comfortable spacious seats and good legroom – more than in current inter city trains – there was nothing about them that one could reasonably complain about once the ride quality problem was sorted out. The refurbishment of the units in 1980-82 suffered from poor detail design.

      The CIG type introduced in 1964 were a replacement for the original Southern Railway electric trains built before 1939. They were also based on the 1951 standard long-distance stock, with a few more seats and a single large brake van instead of two small ones, and some other changes. They too, were perfectly suitable for the job, with adequate room for luggage, cycles, etc..

      The lack of air conditioning was an advantage, since it is only in the past fifteen years that it has been made to work reliably on trains; the original sliding ventilators with air dams were effective, draught-free and adequate except during the odd summer heat wave. Passengers understood that they should not open the windows beyond the arrows and were trained to close the droplights in the doors.

      The suburban slam door stock was also fit for purpose, with optimal seating capacity and station dwell times. The safe operation of slam door trains depended on passengers behaving sensibly, which they did most of the time. The replacement sliding door trains, which are still in service, were poorly designed and did not embody the long experience of other operators such as London Transport who had been using sliding door stock for the previous sixty years.

      The VEP outer suburban design of 1967 was an aberration and bad compromise produced when rolling stock designers had begun to lose their touch. It is a mystery why Southern never adopted the better 1964 AM10 design which was built for similar services on the London Midland Region.

      The general history of British rolling stock design since 1960 been one step forwards-one backwards. Most of the improvements have been under the floor ie out of sight. The real cost of rolling stock has also spiralled – from about £6,000 in 1960 to the best part of £1.5 million today, at least five times the price after allowing for inflation. It is certainly not five times pleasanter to travel in.

  5. Most of my rail trips are on modern stock with automatic doors, but just occasionally, I travel on the lat bastion of slam-door stock, the HST, and remember the big issue with these doors. Having to reach outside and open the heavy door is awkward for most people and impossible for many, made worse by any delay in the guard releasing the central locking. If the Southerm slam-door stock had been retained, this is what they would be like now for safety reasons.

    People wax lyrically about the benefits of slam door stock and forget the low level accident rate they caused, when they were misused, either accidently or on purpose. Whether you like it or not, society has decided that people injuring themselves on the railway is not acceptable. This means that if southern slam door stock was still in service, internal door handles would be removed and all the doors would be centrally locked, removing any benefit of having slam doors.

    The problems of modern stock with automatic doors are due to design issues and operating practises, not an inherent problem with such doors. Trams and underground stock show how quickly automatic doors can operate, but design flaws and operating practises often make automatic far slower to operate than they need to. In particular, plug doors are slower than sliding doors, and having a guard release the doors also dramatically slows down operation – just compare the SouthWestTrains class 455’s (driver released sliding doors) and 450’s (guard released plug doors) – 1 second verses 15 seconds.

    Another design issue is with door switches. Some do not do anything until they have been enabled by the guard or driver, but others will remember they have been pressed and will open as soon as the doors are released. This kind of design may only save a second or so, but it is simple and cheap design feature that improves the operation of the system.

    The trouble with nostalgia is that it only remembers the good bits and forgets the bad bits, and such an biased view is not acceptable. On the other hand, throwing out good design because it is seen as old-fashioned is also biased and so not acceptable. Southern slam-door stock had some good features which should have been carried forward, but weren’t. Nevertheless, manually operated doors with internal handles and no protection, are no longer a good idea and quite rightly have been removed.

    1. Door issues have a history of design mismanagement dating back to the end of the 1960s.

      The original 60 cm hinged doors were as safe as an uncontrolled door can be. The Kay’s locks with which they were fitted had a double-latch feature and a strong spring which meant that they could not be opened accidentally, nor open spontaneously and without warnng. Long distance stock was fitted with locks which could not be opened from the inside.

      The final builds of mark 2 stock introduced 90 cm wrap-round doors. The last of these introduced air-conditioning and internal door handles, so that the windows would not be opened unnecessarily and interfere with the operation of the ventilation system.

      Following a series of accidents, the internal handles on this stock were removed and it was necessary to lower the window to reach the external handle. Due to the position of the handles and the mass of the wrap-round doors, this was more difficult than with the older type of door.

      The accidents continued and it appeared that this type of door was liable to open spontaneously, possibly because of its shape and size. A system of centrally controlled secondary locking was then developed and installed. This proved satisfactory but for some unknown reason the internal handles were not then reinstated as they could have been.

      A secondary locking system was developed for vehicles with the traditional type of 60 cm doors but the cost was excessive and was one of the factors in the decision made around 1998 to scrap the remaining 1500 mark 1 vehicles then in service. Nobody seems to have developed, or tried to develop, a simple system whereby the standard Kay’s lock used in this stock could have been fitted with a supplementary latch at a modest cost.

      A device of that kind would have solved the problem; at that time the vehicles had, subject to a light refurbishment, another 20 years of economic life, which was thereby lost, at considerable expense.

      The number of passenger incidents at the platform train interface has increased by 400% since 2003 according to TfL, The ongoing problem is the subject of an all-day conference at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers on Monday 5 November.

      A lot of the dissatisfaction with modern rolling stock is justified and a result of bad design and bad design management. It is not particularly a British problem, though modern German rolling stock seems in general to be free of the features that are the subjects of the complaints.

  6. I see where your coming from but I don’t agree with you 100%! Heritage livery’s bring back nostalgic memory’s for a lot of travellers, which surely fosters good will. And some of the older schemes do look better than their modern equivalents! They show that a modern bus can look good in a decent livery which, I’m afraid, so many of todays livery’s aren’t!

    I’m from the West Midlands where, in 1988, the main bus operator, then known as West Midlands Travel, abandoned the traditional blue & cream livery that had originated with Birmingham City Transport. The reason given was that blue and cream was confusing passengers who didn’t understand the difference between the arms length West Midlands Travel bus company and the PTE that organised tendered bus services, concessionary fares and the like, as well as supporting train services in the county. Trouble was, the replacing livery was a rather bland looking silver, which was later changed to an even blander, but more economical grey! Not a good image in my opinion, supported by the fact that it didn’t last long, gaining a blue roof (which did improve the appearance) before being replaced by a National Express (after takeover) inspired white, with red & blue stripes livery. This was then replaced by an equally bland red & white colour scheme. Non of these schemes really cemented themselves in the travelling publics eyes!

    Then, last year, NXWM, as they now are (Well, we are, as I work for them!) introduced a crimson based livery which looks absolutely splendid, with the general response being positive. Now, I’m not one for going back but wouldn’t a better approach back in 1988 have been to took the blue & cream but modernised it’s application? That way, the West Midlands would still have that unique to the region image that would have been as identifiable to the region as red buses are to London?

    I suppose what I’m saying is that, whether modern or historical is best surely depends on the quality of the livery concerned!

    1. Buses are a dominant feature in the urban landscape If they have been around for many years their liveries have become iconic. What impression would London make if the dominant feature in its streets was not buses in the red livery which is now almost unchanged since 1933? The green livery of the Paris buses is similarly venerable. The trams and buses here in Gothenburg have had pretty much the same blue livery since the end of the nineteenth century, even though the buses are now run by contractors or concessionaires.

      Liveries are, amongst other things, political statements about society’s attitude to the public realm.

  7. I find myself a little conflicted on this issue too, which perhaps extends not just to historical and tourist interest but the wider enjoyment of travelling. Here in deepest, darkest, greatest Anglia we have a fleet of venerable old Mark III carriages. They are big, squidgy, comfortable things (quite tasteful too, since their refurbishment) and last time I was on one, the buffet car had an array of homemade cakes that would put Paul Hollywood to shame. They are a pleasure to travel on – the seats line with the windows, the carriages ride well, and they have a bit of character in a retro 1970s way. They might, however, not impress the average punter in the street, who will be swayed by shiny new trains with wifi and working air conditioning. Those new trains might also have more capacity, be faster, easier to maintain and keep clean, be more reliable. These are all good things and will help the railway perform its primary function – that of moving people around – better. But I’ll still be sad when the Mark IIIs go.

    Another example might be the British Rail corporate identity manual. It’s a thing of beauty (especially in the form of Wallace Henning’s amazing hardbound reproduction) but could it ever work in 2016? I suspect not – it is after all, a little austere and inflexible. Instead the train must often (not always) compete with the plane and the car and there’s money to be made for whoever can pull in the crowds. So we have Virgin Trains, whose brand has attitude, is edgy, totally in your face, and proactive (not like those squidgy Mark IIIs and their stacks of cranberry flapjacks) – it’s not always elegant but it *is* a compelling, confident and relevant proposition.

    So returning to that question – where do we draw the line between enjoyment on one hand, and effective operation on the other? Perhaps it’s simply through the good design that this blog has championed so well. It’s things like Fina’s souped-up petrol filling stations, London Underground’s snazzy Barman moquette, the SNCF’s ever-recognisable jingle. We can of course hope that those who run our transport networks show a bit more of that vision more often.

  8. A really interesting debate!
    Regarding the New Routemaster, good point about the windows. I’m generally a fan, not least because it got non-bus folk talking about buses! I think the reason it hasn’t yet sold outside of London is because there was a restriction on selling that design for a while? I’m sure I read that somewhere, but I could be wrong. The not dissimilar ADL Enviro 400 City design is beginning to sell outside of the capital, Blackpool having bought some, and ordering some more.
    Good thought-provoking article!

    1. I quite like the Enviro 400 City. If that had been the actual New Routemaster I suspect I’d have been a lot happier with it. Sorts out many of the New Routemaster’s idiosyncracies (i.e. the ones I don’t like, though I know that other people do) with the exception of the shallow front windows on the top deck, which I really regret. I want to see a panorama from the front of my double deckers!

  9. Whilst I very much enjoy this blog, I feel I have to disagree with the author on almost every aspect of this particular post. I currently commute into Leeds on a Pacer. This has one and a half doors per carriage and can take a ridiculous amount of time for everyone to file out, particularly if you’re stuck in the middle of the carriage. The high density slam door trains were very easy to get in and out of quickly, which was a bonus in the peak, and frankly they weren’t as uncomfortable as many people make out. Even a high density VEP was rather more comfortable than a 150 or any of the DMU’s old or new, with bus type seating.

    I also rather like the Boris bus. I had the experience of changing buses in London very recently, and whilst the Boris bus had a retro feel, the travelling environment seemed quite stylish and the seating comfortable. Someone had obviously made an effort on the detail. The more usual double decker I changed onto was older but had a more “modern” feel with rows of uncomfortable hard seats, a tired and un-cared for look and of course only one way to exit.

    If the author is feeling in campaigning mode, the hard uncomfortable seating and uncomfortably harsh lighting which seem to infest most modern public transport vehicles would seem more deserving of ire than heritage liveries or the modern Routemasters.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s quite nice to be disagreed with. Much better than being ignored…

      I suspect we’re not as far apart as you might suppose. Pacers – dreadful. Certainly not an improvement on a Mk 1 slam door. On the other hand, my issue is more with the contingent of people who will say (in advance of them arriving) that they prefer slam door Mk 1 trains to the new CAF Civity trains arriving in the not-too-distant future, just because they prefer historic old trains to new ones.

      In terms of the Boris Bus, I fully agree with you that the travelling environment is stylish and the seating comfortable (with the exception of the seat-top rail, which digs into my spine). I might not have made that point clearly enough. My wish – though others will certainly disagree – is that the care and attention that went into many of the design features inside the New Routemaster had been introduced on a truly modern London bus rather than one which was trying too hard to be ‘retro’. Harsh lighting and uncomfortable seating in public transport interiors dent its potential appeal. I am thoroughly opposed to them (and will pick this up at some point). In the meantime, if you don’t subscribe to Passenger Transport magazine, you really should consider it as I suspect you’d find the column by Ray Stenning of Best Impressions right up your street. It considers lots of those vital design details.

      1. Many thanks for the recommendation – I shall give passenger transport magazine a try.

        On the subject of lighting, I always think the TPE/Northern 158’s got the balance right – just a little subdued.

  10. Sorry Jimbo, my strong preference for the traditional slam door design of rolling stock with plenty of comfortable seats is definitely NOT mere nostalgia ! It’s always been an active choice.

    The rot started to set in when Southeastern’s 4CEPs were refurbished with airline style concrete seats, hopper windows more suited to a greenhouse, harsh fluorescent lighting and all the ‘worsements’ previously described. As soon as I saw the dreaded hopper windows that warned that the approaching 4CEP had suffered refurbished, it was a quick dash along the platform in the hope that rear unit(s) would feature a 4VEP or an unrefurbished 4CEP. The 4VEPs had once been the slightly poor relation, but they then became the preferred choice.

    But even the VEPs were soon worsened: the horizontally sliding windows were sealed up, the curtains were ripped out and the cosy warm tungsten lighting replaced by cold fluorescent glare. Some Southern 4VEPs fared even worse because the droplight windows could then only be lowered a few inches, leaving them with a mere one sixth of their original ventilation (until window bars were eventually fitted towards the end of their service life). The spring counterbalance mechanism often meant that the windows would slowly keep closing, so it was a common sight to see a 4VEP arrive festooned with Coke cans to keep the windows wedged open.

    After the hermetically sealed Electrostars started to appear, it was a case of choosing the decreasing number of trains timetabled to have slam door stock. Today it’s still a quick sprint whenever an Electrostar 3759xx is spotted. The 9 warns that it’ll have 3+2 ironing board seats, so one’s only hope is to find a unit with the less uncomfortable 2+2 seats.

    @ yorksrob: I also like the design of the Boris buses, it’s just the implementation and reliability that have been such a massive let down. Internally, they feel almost luxurious with comfortable traditional seating, good non-glare reading lights and an Odeonic plushness. Yes, the inability to see a following bus from upstairs is a clanger, and the front has a frown rather than ‘smiling eyes’ but otherwise it’s a friendly up-market design. It’s just a shame that the batteries lose capacity, the air conditioning wasn’t beefy enough and above all, that the essential hop-on hop-off freedom has gone.

    If only they had used modern gizmos such as intelligent CCTV and emergency stop buttons to allow safe one-man operation with a permanently open platform…

    @ philtonks: There’s never been any restriction on sale of Boris buses outside London, they’d be only too pleased. They’ve even been driven around places such as New York, but sadly there have been no takers.

    1. Ah yes, I must admit, even after refurbishment I always found the VEP’s to have a more pleasing, calming ambience than the refurbished CEP’s.

      It’s a shame the Boris bus has had some teething troubles – I’ve managed to avoid any such issues when I’ve been on them fortunately.

  11. The Boris bus ended up like it did because Boris Johnson wanted a new Routemaster for a reason – something that would sell Boris Johnson. He wanted it to be visually new because it was an advert for him. He wanted 60s nostalgia because he wanted to appeal to suburban boomers who remember being young then and (being suburbanites) don’t use buses or care about them. He wanted shiny look and feel because that’s the key brand value of Boris Johnson – nostalgia, but modern, so you don’t have to believe in God or give up credit cards or sex to buy into it. And he wanted “New Routemaster” because as a lifelong writer he knew it would be good copy.

    Amazon has an internal practice of writing the press release for a new product *first*, before they develop the code. Boris developed the PR treatment for his re-election first, then ordered a bus to suit it. Not surprisingly, it sucks. I was on one yesterday where the lights went off every time it stopped.

  12. Interesting article. I tend to side a bit more on the function side of the debate than nostalgia. I can understand why some people feel so passionately about older designs of bus or train but the transport network is not a museum. It’s about getting people where they want to go quickly, effectively and at an affordable price. I am all for good new design and appropriate preservation of past excellent design but that doesn’t mean you don’t progress. And sometimes progress overall may mean you have to compromise some of what was excellent or good before.

    Would I want to be still ratting along on a class 104 DMU between Barking and Gospel Oak or am I looking forward to new EMUs with more room, a smoother ride and a rejuvinated infrastructure? Definitely the latter and the class 172s are decent enough in the meantime except when overwhelmed in the peaks. As for the New Bus for London – well ugh. The only bus type in existence that makes me ill and gives me headaches. Its spread across Central London routes has meant I now barely travel to or in Zone 1. Worse. two remaining, local to me. radial bus routes are being converted to the wretched things this year thus removing two viable alternative ways home in case of tube or rail problems. My bus usage has plummeted as a result of that one bus type and we are lumbered with them for at least another 10-14 years all because of one man’s vanity and incompetence. I know some people love them but for me they are a complete disaster and part of the reason why people have stopped using buses in London. Any other modern standard double decker offers a vastly better travelling environment.

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