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.

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


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

Six tests for PM’s London-style vision


Boris Johnson wants transport in the rest of the UK’s metro areas to be a lot more like London and a lot less so so. So here’s six early indicators to watch out for that show whether we are on course for this… or not.

1. All the political big names love buses these days – if they can’t claim blood relatives in the industry, they are making models of buses in the evenings. True love means long term commitment though and if bus decline is going to be turned upside down then we need to see the bus get a bigger slice of the transport funding pie. So all eyes will be on the Budget and Spending Review to see the extent of reform and any funding increase.

2. There’s been lots of talk both pre and post election on ramping up devolution and even significant local government reform. Early signals are that we could be looking at some rationalisation at least – with one model (city region mayors) for the big urban areas and another for the shires (less tiered than now). But will Whitehall now really take the plunge and give up its ability to pull the strings and take the credit for local government successes?

Getting some longer term stability on local transport funding will be particularly crucial if we are to see the ramping up of investment in transforming local transport in towns and cities. At present there’s excessive reliance on ad hoc competition funding which makes for great press releases and helps clever and important people in meeting rooms in central London feel suitably omnipotent. It’s true that separate new funds for potholes, electric bus towns, cycling, superbuses, future mobility and so on all make tremendous sense in their own terms. But it all adds up to a nonsense way of doing things if you are trying to plan local transport networks as a whole in an integrated long term way.

For example, what if it makes sense for your authority to focus on different things in different years due to the lumpiness of some projects (such as BRT systems, trams, major interchanges)? What about projects that cut across different competition headings? How do we fund the stuff that doesn’t have its own pot? What about the costs of all the bids that fail? How on earth does a local transport authority plan its workload and develop its staff when it doesn’t know what competitions are coming next and when they will win? How do you meet the long term challenges of urban transport when all of these funding pots are relatively short term? So what happens early on with local transport funding could set the tone for years ahead about whether we are looking at real devolution or a more vigorously spun version of the usual puppeteering from the centre.

3. Talking of devolution we can now expect to see rail reform following on from the Williams Review. The PM has been strong in speeches about handing over more control over local rail networks. However the Williams Review team could hardly have been more cautious – if not borderline negative. How this is resolved is key to whether or not our metro areas are going to get the fully integrated, London-style urban transport systems that the PM has said he wants to see. Because for many of our big urban areas the heavy rail network is the tram/light rail/S-Bahn system they haven’t got (or only partially got). So, no meaningful control over urban rail means no meaningful wider integrated public transport network.

4. Not so high profile, but rumbling along in the background is the government’s moves to establish a legal and regulatory framework that can cope with new mobility options, such as the transformation of the PHV sector, powered personal mobility devices (including e-scooters), connected and autonomous vehicles and so on. Urban transport authorities don’t want the overarching technical safety role. But they do need a legal and regulatory framework which gives them the ability to strike the right balance in their areas between consumer benefits and the wider public interest; between ‘sandboxing’ innovations and taking action if flooding of cities with new mobility options is causing wider problems, such as for public safety, congestion or street clutter. The danger is that if this doesn’t happen urban transport policy will end up being re-centralised by the back door – with Whitehall setting one-size fits all rules for new mobility over the top of the more locally specific arrangements for old mobility (buses and trains).

5. Post election everybody is talking post-industrial towns. A good job about that, last year while everyone else was writing repetitive reports about cities, we put together the one and only report on how transport can help post-industrial towns thrive. In short it found there are no magic bullets. Among its findings were that town centres should radiate easy cycling and walking routes and that town stations and interchanges can act as hubs, gateways and community and business premises. It also made the case for the transport sector to be an exemplary employer because it is a major employer in towns (from bus and taxi drivers to workers in big shed logistics centres). But it also showed the need for attention to local detail and the views of local communities. A prime example of the need for patient, long-term policies which again requires real devolution of powers and funding.

6. One more thing and it’s the biggest thing. The thing that is going to grow as we head towards the make or break international talks in Glasgow in November – the climate emergency. It’s likely in 2020 that at the very least this will lead to a ramping up of moves to electrify road transport. This means we will need to move from the current cottage industry of charging infrastructure to something much more comprehensive. And for that we need a bigger top table of those who are going to bring it about – with the city regions given a seat alongside government, catapults, the vehicle manufacturers, public transport providers and the energy sector.

More widely, if we really mean it about it being an emergency, then it should change the way we look at everything – in particular how much sense it makes that bits and pieces of staggeringly expensive road schemes (which in turn are a guarantee of more car dependent sprawl) are still so dominant in transport spending when they are utterly non-compliant with a climate emergency and counter-productive in nearly every other way too. It could also mean we are back in the business of modal shift and traffic reduction targets as well as big leaps forward in the scale of car-free ambitions (take a bow Birmingham).

So in closing we remain, as ever, so near but yet so far on urban transport. Take Liverpool city region as an example. Right now it is taking delivery of the first of what are the UK’s most sophisticated commuter trains which will transform what its extensive S-Bahn equivalent urban rail network provides. In parallel with bus reform it’s now within grasp to bring this all together within the next five years into a single, modern and fully integrated network which will look and feel akin to the ‘one network, one ticket, one system’ that London and European counterpart cities take for granted. Indeed it could be up there with the best of them. And the same is true of course not just in Liverpool city region but in other city regions too. What happens with the six pointers above will give an early indication of whether this will be finally achieved over the next five years, or remain a ‘so near but yet so far’.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

The blog first appeared in Passenger Transport Magazine.