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.

What does the National Travel Survey tell us about how much we travel?

London blur social

The Government recently published the National Travel Survey, one of the annual highlights in the calendar for transport researchers such as myself. Contained in the cells and tabs of the 77 spreadsheets served up in the survey (as well as, to the credit of the Department for Transport, its accompanying commentary document) is a statistical nirvana on how we, as a nation, are travelling.

So what does it tell us? One of the most interesting highlights is that the number of trips made by residents of England increased to 986 trips last year, 11 more than the year before and the highest number since 2009. Following a long period of decline, we have started to record more trips in the last couple of years.

Which modes are seeing growth?

Much of this recent increase can be accounted for in walking trips, which are now at their highest level since 2006. Walking has been the big winner in the last couple of years, with the apparent under reporting in short walks being corrected for since 2016. We’re now seeing 39 additional walking trips per person since 2014. Great news for active travel advocates such as ourselves.

Less good news, particularly from a climate perspective, is that the number of trips as a car or van driver increased to 395 (up from 390 in 2017), reaching their highest levels since 2010. Last year also saw a large increase in the number of young people with a driving licence, reversing the recent trend.

However despite this recent increase in car or van trips, the actual distance travelled as a car or van driver decreased over the last year and is at its lowest level since 2013, with the average trip length falling to 8.2 miles (from 8.4 miles the previous year). The number of trips people made by car in urban conurbations also fell in the last year (4 less trips per person), mirroring trends we have seen in local cordon counts.

Surface rail hit a new high for the number of trips per person (22). This is a small increase on the previous year (21) and continues a long standing trend of steel wheel success.

Which modes are seeing decline?

Both inside and outside of London the bus did badly (two fewer trips per person in London and four fewer trips for the rest of the country). This disappointing but largely expected news leaves the bus at a low point in the last decade, with only population growth preventing further falls in patronage.

When it comes to two wheels, national figures once again show a somewhat bumpy ride for cycling, with numbers hovering around 17 annual trips per person on average for the last few years. This is despite local evidence in our city regions which shows large scale growth where high quality infrastructure schemes are implemented. This suggests that whilst there has been a lot of good work in this area, there is still more to do to emulate the success of places like London – where cycling has been the fastest growing mode of transport in since 2000 – on a nation-wide scale.

The impact of the car on our mobility

Another fascinating tidbit to emerge is the relationship between car ownership and travel. Households with a car continue to make more trips overall (986) than those who don’t own one (737), with the main car driver in the household making the highest number of trips overall (1,163).

Car ownership also impacts on the distance travelled, with a household with no car averaging 2,760 miles per year compared to a staggering 6,530 miles for a household with a car (and 9,163 for the main driver of the car in the household).

Whilst there are likely to be a number of factors that impact on this trend (households with no car can range from wealthy city centre dwellers to households experiencing high levels of poverty), the presence of a car has a significant impact on how households travel.

What does this mean for our cities?

While the national statistics are undoubtedly interesting, looking at the number of trips in isolation doesn’t tell the full story. A major success story from our cities over recent years has been the reverse of long-term population decline and the revitalisation of their economies. With ever more people wanting to travel into and within our major cities, it is important that we are able to encourage them into higher capacity modes. In this sense, the increase in walking levels and rail are welcome trends.

If we do choose to look at our major cities in isolation, it seems that their trends are different to that of the national picture. Cordon counts are showing a decrease in the number of cars recorded in the morning rush hour into some of the largest city centres. Cities such as Birmingham have seen the total number of people commuting in the morning peak increase and have achieved this with a decrease in the number of cars over the last five years.

The Urban Transport Group is currently undertaking a research programme which explores changing travel trends and has a particular focus on improving understanding of the factors driving the decline in bus patronage.

Our annual Number crunch report and online transport data tool, the Data Hub, go into greater detail as to the trends that are taking place in our cities.

Dr Tom Ellerton is a Researcher at the Urban Transport Group

How Merseyrail dared to be different

Merseyrail Electrics train at Old Roan crossing the Leeds Liverpool canal.

“Liverpool, surreal. Liverpool, sardonic. Liverpool battered dignity. Liverpool, flotsam of maritime memory. Liverpool never quite what it was because everything it does changes what it does … Liverpool, welcoming the world. Liverpool cutting edge, keeping pace, dropping anchor.”

Extract from The North by Paul Morley

Liverpool is different. And so is its very own rail network. None of the other city regions has a high tempo, heavy rail electric network quite like this. A not quite S-Bahn. Bright yellow electric trains that radiate out across the Wirral, chalking off the town and suburban centres at regular intervals, before feeling the pull of urban gravity and returning to a whirl around city centre underground loop before being flung out again back towards the suburbs. At the same time another route uses a tunnel sitting above the city centre loop as its trains shuttle north to south, to and fro across the conurbation.

The nearest equivalent to Merseyrail Electrics would be the Tyne and Wear Metro. The other bold example from those far away fearless modernist times, the 1970s, of taking a ramshackle fragmented commuter train network and using new city centre tunnels and rolling stock to gift the area what amounted to a new rail network. A network that reorganised and re-imagined the way people used, thought about and understood their conurbation.

Liverpool is different. The first iteration of the Strategic Rail Authority was a fairly dire combination of Department for Transport lifers and neo-liberal true believers who were passing through. Consequently, the SRA was neither strategic nor authoritative, leaving barely a ripple on the surface when it finally sank beneath the waves. However, there was one act of bravado which somehow slipped through. In 2003, the SRA handed over the Merseyrail Electrics contract to Merseytravel and delivered by a Serco/Abellio joint venture of up to 25 years and with enough funding attached so they could quietly get on with it. The smoke had hardly cleared from the uniforms of the previous franchisee that the staff relished burning, when performance and passenger satisfaction on the new franchise went up like a rocket. It was ‘Miseryrail’ no longer. A text book example of the instant boost to performance, made by having those in charge of a service in the same geography as those operating.

That stability and local control has provided the basis for this unusual operation to push on. It’s not just the unique nature of this network that makes it feel different to the user, it’s also (give or take at the margins) the fact that all of the stations are staffed all of the time. Whereas on other networks too many local heavy rail stations were notable for their lost and abandoned, take it or leave it, ambiance (their lop-sided station signs pock marked by the impact of air rifle pellets), this was not the case on Merseyrail Electrics. It felt like a network that wanted your business; one where someone was watching over you.

Franchise control has helped Merseytravel to build on that base in multiple ways – through working with Serco/Abellio as the franchisee to import some Dutch innovation on cycle hire and facilities through to combining convenience stores with booking office functions. Franchise control has gone alongside giving more of the city region’s significant sub-centres such as St Helens and Newton-le-Willows – the interchanges they merit – as well as a new hub at Liverpool South Parkway.

And there’s been innovation in suburbia too. Including an eco-refit for Ainsdale station and a brand new station at Maghull North specifically to ensure a new housing development had good public transport provision in place (before the concrete on the carports had set).

Merseytravel_Stadler_General_02

All the stations are now being prepared for the biggest change to the network in years – new rolling stock. When I was in Liverpool a few weeks back I went to see the mock-up of the new rolling stock (the first trains are being built now), which was being temporarily stored in a ventilation plant for one of the road tunnels under the Mersey. And the more you look, the more you see (it’s a very realistic mock up!). The doors have a crafty ramp which extends to provide as near level access as you are going to get. The trains will be fully connected allowing for a fully connected control centre and fully connected passengers. Passengers who, when they aren’t mainlining the results of their Wi-Fi connections, will be able to see the view ahead on the railway line through the cab window and doors (unless the driver flicks a switch and the windows go dark that is!). They will be nippier and higher capacity too. They will also be capable of being powered by both third rail and overhead electricity as well as having ‘passive provision’ for a battery pack. In short, these publicly owned (by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority) trains are setting the standard for urban commuter trains.

Their ‘go anywhere’ capability also lowers the bar for more network extensions. Merseyrail broke the bounds of its original tight operating area some time ago by reaching down into deepest Cheshire with extensions to Chester and Ellesmere Port in the early 1990s.  The new horizons of Skelmersdale, Wrexham and Preston now beckon.

However, looming above all that is the need to do something about Liverpool Central – which sits on both the city centre loop and link lines, and which is struggling to cope with the trains and passenger numbers it already has. As its name suggests, Liverpool Central is also a prime commercial site – which brings both the blessing of potential developer contributions but the curse of trying to expand a station located in such a tight spot both below, at and above ground level.

Meanwhile, the combined authority is also taking up the former transport secretary up on his offer to look at taking over the Merseyrail infrastructure to create a vertically integrated network. The deal maker – or deal breaker – is likely to be around who stands behind what level of risk. Whilst the city region maps out its own destiny on its own rail network, frustration abounds over what the future holds for long distance services beyond its borders. Already relatively poorly connected to the intercity network for a city of its size, what it will end up with from the shifting sands of HS2, the TransPennine upgrade and Northern Powerhouse Rail is far from clear. And if Liverpool Central is a pinch point on Merseyrail Electrics, Lime Street (despite the welcome recent expansion of capacity) and its approaches, is a pinch point for the city’s aspirations for high speed rail connections.

This is exacerbated because Liverpool is as serious a port city as it ever was (though this is not as immediately visible as it used to be) and can now accommodate the largest container ships in the world. The craziness of routing the majority of the nation’s maritime imports and exports through the busiest corner of the country (the South East) – at vast public expense in knock-on road and rail infrastructure – is under challenge from Liverpool and the North’s other increasingly punchy and determined ports. But accommodating a growing stream of monster container trains winding their way out of the docks is another reason why Liverpool needs to know what the plan is for increasing rail capacity both due south and due east.

As well as its rail ambitions, the city region is also progressing its options on the future of the bus network, potentially opening the way to giving the city region a fully integrated public transport network where a modern bus network complements the country’s most technically advanced commuter trains. Trains that are capable of plugging more places into the heart of a city centre that has definitely got its buzz back. With both the two main UK political parties backing city regions to take control of their local public transport networks, this unique city could well be on the brink of finding another way to be different.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.