Comfort or ‘capitalist realism’?

PT comfort

There are a lot of new trains – faster and with more seats. So that’s good. Some of the nose cones are sleek and the exterior styling is impressive. But it doesn’t seem like the same amount of thought has always been put into the design of train interiors and passenger comfort. Poor ride quality, harsh lighting and hard seats are common. Standard class provision feels more abundant – but at the same time sub-standard and utilitarian. It was as if the design brief stated “…imagine that the GDR still existed and that there are only two colours left in the world”.

Why are train interiors being designed by this, does it matter and if so what’s to be done about it? I suspect the reason it’s happening is that we have a railway which is ruled by engineers and financial engineers plus an absentee landlord in the form of the Department for Transport. And with passengers flocking to rail (almost regardless of what’s sometimes done to deter them) train design becomes all about meeting a seemingly unquenchable demand for rail travel. The big challenge is finding more places to cram more passengers on to more trains. So why make the extra effort on comfort and style?

There’s also a hole in the centre of the railway, the place where British Rail used to do the R and D and think big thoughts about the issues that are less immediately critical. Like comfort and design.

But does it really matter? Not if you look only at passenger growth figures. But then the national passenger surveys tell us that more people were satisfied with their last bus journey (88%) than were satisfied with their last rail journey (82%). But the patronage stats also show that passengers have been abandoning the bus whilst flocking to rail.

So let’s go deeper, and then deeper still; beyond the facts and figures and down into the netherworld of feelings and emotions and instincts. Where even the colours and the sounds we experience influence our actions in ways we weren’t even aware of. By way of example, when two different liveries for the existing Merseyrail fleet were presented to the public they rated the one with the livery they liked best better for comfort, despite the fact that aside from the livery the trains were the same.

Meanwhile, in Japan, CityLab recently reported that suicides have decreased at stations where overhead blue lights have been positioned at platform ends. Because blue is a calming colour.

And then there’s time. In many ways choosing to travel by train is a logical choice with journey time being a big factor. However, once you are on board your sense of time can start to become elastic. The commute or trip for work can take on value as a transitional or preparational time. A firewall between domestic and professional life. A time when zoning out is absolutely fine. Where ‘anti-activity’ is acceptable and to some extent revered (‘the quiet coach’). Where train travel ‘gifts’ you a different kind of time.

Perhaps this is one reason why commuter trains can be as quiet as a monastery. Perhaps part of the agitation about having to stand, or travel in grimly designed trains where you don’t have any space, is to do with the loss of this kind of time?

It’s different for leisure travellers. The research suggests that leisure travellers actually want more stimulation en route as the journey is part of the purpose. If there’s someone noisy in the morning commute it’s much more likely to be a stray leisure passenger than a work traveller.

It’s also interesting to speculate how the all pervading always online nature of modern life has flattened out the experience of rail travel – for travellers for work in particular. If you tune in beneath the silence of the commuters, and the sound of the train in motion, there is the insect-like clatter of tapping keyboards. The single seat on the train journey becomes an extension of the single desk at the office – rather than a prelude to it.

And whereas there is no doubt a strength to the argument that the ability to go online for work or leisure is an advantage public transport holds over being a car driver, could it be true that conversely this could make driving more attractive insofar as it becomes one of the few remaining places where you can force yourself to avoid going online? In which case does rail design need to offer something more?

I’m always interested in what’s going on in the Netherlands, as their base level of rational pragmatism gives them space to be creative on transport (and public policy more widely), and then to implement at scale – and boldly. On this topic this includes the work of Dr Mark van Hagen of NS, the Netherlands state railway, from whom a lot of the content of this article is inspired (although any misinterpretation is mine). NS has been trialling different approaches to the design of the environment that passengers experience at stations and on trains and methodically assessing how this influences the way passengers respond.

I could feel that NS had been benevolently messing with my head when I was last at the new Rotterdam Centraal station which despite its impressive scale has a sense of all pervading calm which you can feel literally slowing your mental metabolism.

One of the reasons why they have put a lot of thought into it is that interchanges are a big source of negative experiences for passengers. They are also places where time can slow down (because waiting for a train can be boring if the environment is too harsh and without facilities or distraction), or stressful (if you can’t find your train). So they have sought to create an environment which all passengers can easily navigate and where they feel socially as well as physically safe, whilst providing facilities and attractors (useful retail) where it doesn’t get in the way of the station’s essential function.

Some of this is also about ensuring passengers feel in control of an experience. Where the railway is getting the basics right, then adding the extras – like pianos on concourses – can give a lift to satisfaction scores (including for other aspects of the experience of the station which in reality haven’t changed one iota).

With a large station it is easier for the same station to give different types of passenger what they want from the same building – but not so easy with train design. At present the prevailing style of modern train travel in the UK might be best described as ‘capitalist realism’. You can sense the financial calculations about what was realistic to provide.

But travel on scenic and secondary lines in many parts of Europe now and you will find single car units which look extraordinarily generous and ‘unrealistic’ in what they gift to passengers, with huge near floor to ceiling windows and the feeling that the whole train is basically an observation car. Take the German ICEs with their family cabins, or the experiments with social and shared space that are increasingly taking place in train design.

None of this seems ‘realistic’ to us – but there you will see it, pulling into the platform in Wroclaw or Dusseldorf.

However, in the UK there are also signs of restlessness against the capitalist realism of modern train design – with the backlash against hard seats on Thameslink and elsewhere. Scotland too is increasingly unwilling to accept that the trains serving some of the world’s great railway journeys should be so uninspiring and without guaranteed access to the views.

I will leave the last words to Dr Hagen: “If the desire for speed and ease is met, the passenger will experience a sense of control and be satisfied with the journey (but no more than that). Speed and ease belong to the core business of train travel; they are generic and apply to each station and train. Comfort and experience are satisfiers.”

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.

Is transport the cure-all that the NHS needs?

cure-all_44264497

Greater Manchester’s Cycling and Walking Commissioner Chris Boardman was recently quoted as saying “Pick a crisis: congestion, obesity, inequality, air pollution, global warming, safety…Investing in cycling and walking is as close to a silver bullet as you’ll get.”

The NHS is certainly in the market for a cure-all, unveiling last month the ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign. The campaign aims to ensure that the NHS and its staff step up efforts to tackle what it calls the climate ‘health emergency’. It recognises that what is bad for the planet – global warming, flooding, air pollution – is also bad for people’s health, with evidence linking these conditions to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, asthma and the spread of infections and diseases.

The campaign involves the establishment of an expert panel to chart a practical course to get the NHS to net zero emissions; a new NHS Standard Contract calling on hospitals to reduce carbon from buildings and estates; and a grassroots movement to encourage staff and hospitals to reduce their impact on the environment, and in doing so, improve people’s health.

Transport is recognised in the campaign as having a key role to play in placing the NHS on the path to net zero. It is estimated that patients and visitors to NHS facilities alone generate 6.7 billion road miles every year. The NHS Long Term Plan has previously committed to making better use of technology to reduce the number of face-to-face appointments patients need to attend. Staff travel is also a problem and the grassroots campaign will encourage more employees to travel on foot or by bike. In addition, NHS fleets are acknowledged as needing a clean-up, with NHS Chief Sir Simon Stevens pledging last year to help ‘blue lights go green’ to reduce their impact on climate and air pollution.

Transport, health and climate are inextricably linked to, and dependent on, one another. The transport choices we make as individuals, organisations and policy makers influence the speed of climate change and the quality of our air. They also help determine the amount of physical activity a person undertakes, their mental wellbeing and their access to opportunities.

For many years we have been calling for greater recognition of the connections between transport and health and for more collaboration between the two sectors. The tools and evidence base we have built and collected over this time can be found on our Health and Wellbeing hub. The ‘For a greener NHS’ campaign presents a big opportunity to strengthen and maximise those connections and relationships.

To this end, we have written to the newly appointed Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, Dr Nick Watts, welcoming him to the role and expressing our wish to work with the NHS in a strategic way to address our shared challenges. Our letter includes four propositions that we believe could help:

  1. A health and transport champion in each region charged with making the connections between the sectors and bringing leadership on the issue.Evidence suggests that progress on making the connections between transport and health is frequently driven by passionate individuals keen to make a difference above and beyond their day jobs. When these individuals move on, or when their organisations are restructured, the momentum can be quickly lost.Creating a specific, permanent role within each NHS England regional team to champion and drive forward joined-up thinking between health and transport could provide a stable footing for strategic, long-term collaboration.
  2. A health and transport convention in each region of England co-owned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Department for Transport (DfT) to seek to broker ways forward.Our research shows that despite growing collaboration between our two sectors, significant barriers remain, from differing standards of evidence to the use of codified languages. From a transport perspective, even identifying whom to engage in the NHS – and maintaining that engagement – can prove very challenging.There would be value in enabling key health and transport stakeholders in each region to meet, build relationships and broker ways forward.
  3. Require the NHS to consult with transport authorities when making decisions on healthcare locations. The DfT and DHSC should co-commission good practice guidance on ensuring sustainable transport access to healthcare to support this.Evidence gathered from our members suggests that consultation by the health sector with transport bodies about decisions to open, close, merge or re-locate healthcare settings is patchy. When transport bodies are consulted, too often location decisions have already been made. Sites that are poorly integrated with public transport, walking and cycling networks generate more car journeys, contributing to congestion, poor air quality, climate change and physical inactivity.These issues can be avoided if transport authorities are consulted at the earliest possible stage. They can provide expert advice about which sites would be most accessible, minimise traffic and support non-car access (and therefore positive climate and health outcomes), enabling these factors to be designed into the scheme from the outset.
  4. An independently chaired government review to examine the efficiency and effectiveness of non-emergency patient transport services (NEPTS) and potential reforms.We believe that there is considerable scope to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of NEPTS to reduce the number of journeys and vehicles on the road.In 2017, we worked with the Community Transport Association and the Association of Transport Coordinating Officers to explore alternative approaches to commissioning non-emergency patient transport and found that taking a ‘Total Transport’ approach to NEPTS has the potential to generate significant savings for the NHS as well as deliver better outcomes for patients.

    Total Transport would see multiple public and community sector fleets (e.g. NHS, social care, education) bought together into a shared pool under a single point of access catering for a wide range of passengers (from patients to school children). Often there is considerable overlap in the vehicle standards and care components required across sectors. The pool of vehicles would be coordinated and scheduled centrally, taking into account options on the mainstream network. It would ensure that the entire public sector vehicle fleet is put to maximum use throughout the day and that the right vehicle is deployed for the right job (avoiding over-specification).

    In doing so, NHS and other public sector partners could achieve more using fewer vehicles and reduce the number of trips made overall. The benefits would be further extended if the pooled fleet was made up of zero or low emission vehicles.

As well as the Chair of the NHS Net Zero Expert Panel, we have also shared these ideas with HM Treasury, Sir Simon Stevens (CEO of the NHS) and the Director of the Sustainable Development Unit (the body which supports the sustainable environmental, social and financial development of the NHS, public health and social care).

We hope that colleagues in the health sector find the ideas useful and take up our invitation to work more closely together at strategic level to fully realise the potential of clean, active transport as a prescription to cure the ills of people and planet alike.

Rebecca Fuller is Assistant Director at the Urban Transport Group

Moving City Regions Together: The people who make our journeys possible

Multiple

What’s it like to work for an organisation whose role is to enable people to move across cities?

Answer: well, there is no one answer to this question.

Ask a Customer Service Assistant on the London Underground what they do, and they might tell you they perform a range of jobs from allowing people to pass through ticket barriers to helping someone going into labour… and everything in between.

Likewise, back office staff such as a Control Centre Officer in Greater Manchester, will be keeping an eye across an entire transport network – highways, rail, bus and trams – to ensure people are moving safely and efficiently, and responding to any issues which might impact on that goal.

Or, there’s the transport planners who are tasked with ensuring buses can have priority in congested city centres whilst balancing the needs of other road users, or those responsible for creating safe infrastructure to enable walkers and cyclists to travel with ease and confidence.

The list of roles goes on…

And many of these are somewhat invisible jobs – the ones you might not see as you make your journeys, but that are none-the-less vital.

This is what the Urban Transport Group – the UK’s network of city region transport authorities – sought to show through its new campaign ‘Moving City Regions Together’.

We took to the transport networks of our seven full members to meet the people who make our journeys possible. And what a diverse group of people they are, coming from all walks of life and different backgrounds.

From the Midlands Metro magician to Castleford’s brilliant Bus Station Manager, the staff on our networks are as varied as people who travel on them.

It’s true that all our members face similar challenges to running their networks. From issues around funding and powers, to air quality, climate change and accessibility, moving hundreds of thousands (and in some cases millions) of passengers across urban areas is no easy task.

But our films demonstrate how each person working within our member organisations – whether a front line employee who drives a tram or checks a ticket, to the office-based staff who plan transport networks or try to encourage more sustainable travel – all play an absolutely integral role in keeping our cities moving and ensuring they are the greener, happier, healthier and more prosperous places we want them to be. And they do this with a smile on their faces. These staff are a credit to the organisations they work for.

You can view a short compilation film or the full-length film.

Alternatively, you can watch individual films for:

  • Rachel, the London bus driver, and Christina, the London Underground Customer Service Assistant
  • Gerry, Castleford’s Bus Station Manager, and Marilyn and Nicola, West Yorkshire’s sustainable travel champions
  • Chris, the Midlands Metro supervisor, and Anne, Director of Network Resilience in the West Midlands
  • Nigel, Tyne and Wear’s Metro customer assistant, and Peter, the project manager behind the South Shields Transport Interchange
  • Martin, Greater Manchester’s walking and cycling champion, and Alex, the eye in the sky for Manchester’s transport network
  • Richard, the active travel advocate in Sheffield, and Praveena, who’s ensuring buses are accessible in South Yorkshire
  • Ian, the Captain ferrying passengers across the Mersey River.

 

We hope you enjoy watching the films as much as we enjoyed making them.

A special thanks must go to all those who participated in the films, those who made the filming possible, and of course our outstanding film maker Nick Hulme.

James Kershaw is Media and Communications Manager at the Urban Transport Group