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Rail In the press
Designing a better passenger experience
The role that design can play is in creating a transformative vision of what future rail experiences could become.
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The role that design can play is in creating a transformative vision of what future rail experiences could become.

A positive passenger experience aided by strong industrial design has long been a focus for the aviation industry. Whilst for the rail industry, delivering typically shorter journeys and with less direct competition on routes, design hasn’t always been as big a priority. Yet this is changing as rail competes more directly with other modes of transport, primarily short haul air and car travel. As such the demands from the passenger along with changes in technology and liberalisation of the market have led to greater emphasis on the importance of design. SmartRail World was keen to gain an insight into the latest developments of rail interior design but also a better understanding of the demands within aviation so we spoke to James Park, Founder and Principal, London, and Ben Orson, Managing Director, London, of JPA Design whose international work covers both industries for some insights...

Luke Upton (LU): Hello both, thanks for the time today, JPA Design is perhaps best known for your work in aviation, with a client list including Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and many others. With your portfolio now increasingly including work in the rail sector, I’m interested to gain your thoughts on some of the differences and similarities that you can see between design within the two industries.

James Park (JP): Hi Luke. Well its probably easier if I begin with the differences, whilst both trains and planes provide long duration journeys, it is unusual for air travellers to fly from city centre to city centre whereas rail does provide centre to centre services and a wide choice of more regional destinations. Rail offers a far greater range of experiences for shorter journeys, for example; there are tube trains, numerous types of commuter trains, where a high proportion of standing passengers are common, there are other metro services offering journeys up to (say) 1.5hours and there are a range of high speed intercity services offering more hospitality and more choice of accommodation. Air travel offers speed and efficiency for longer journeys but on longer rail journeys, passengers can expect the option of moving around the train from seat to buffet for example or to a Bar Car, an enjoyable view of the landscape and passengers also have options to disembark along the route. The rate of turnover of passengers on rail is greater so wear and tear of the product is a big consideration in the design and engineering of the interiors. Vandalism is a greater problem on rail despite the greater durability of the on-board products and this may be largely due to the fact that aircraft interiors are continuously supervised by crew. Passengers use trains on a daily basis unlike planes wherein passengers may fly on a weekly, monthly, yearly (or less) basis but rarely are planes used as a daily commute. In short the usage of planes and trains is generally quite different and the comparison between the rail and aviation may not be helpful because the applications are also different. It’s true that both types of vehicle are in effect tubular and both carry large numbers of passengers and in that context there may be things that both industries can learn from each other.

For similarities, both rail and aviation operators work hard to optimise the passenger experience and to bring aesthetic appeal and functionality of the seats to the cabin environment. Both are moving environments and as such bring particular requirements in terms of crash worthiness through physical resistance to impact and flammability. Branding is a key issue for both types of operators as they function in a competitive marketplace where the character of their offer can be an important differentiator. Both trains and planes are part of a spectrum of vehicle design (also including automotive) that offers a similar functionality (getting from A to B) albeit in a different format. These similarities invite comparisons and so products of this type are in a way competing with each other and as trains get faster and planes fly to ever more regional destinations that competition for the same market increases but this must ultimately be limited by the differing infrastructure requirements.

LU: Ben, passenger experience is at the heart of aviation design but in this area rail can sometimes be appearing to play catch-up. With a growth in rail use, in particular over longdistances, what role can design play in improving the passenger experience?

Ben Orson (BO): As rail operators increase their competition for passengers it will lead to greater marketing spend on design differentiation and the on-board hospitality offer. In that context design can respond by delivering improved solutions to functionality, weight, ergonomics, comfort, styling and ambiance. In addition design can (and does) make a big contribution to the improvement of terminal buildings and improved passenger flow, and as public expectations rise then the pressure to improve will increase. Advertising creates a heightened awareness of the merits of almost all other transport and consumer products and it is that awareness that forms the aspirations of the travelling public. It is those aspirations that designers try to satisfy and to exceed. Design achieves less in isolation but properly deployed and enabled it makes a very big contribution to the world we live in, The role that design can play is in creating a transformative vision of what future rail experiences could become. Design has to go further than incrementally improving the status quo. Design needs to create the products that we don’t know yet we need but which improve life in surprising and economical ways.

LU: With an ever-increasing number of rail passengers bringing their own devices on-board (i.e. smartphones, tablets etc.) what can the fabric of the train itself do to improve the use of this technology?

JP: Some progress has been made in this area but the essentials include the provision of power and connectivity, making connectivity reliable in all condition such as tunnels, cuttings etc. The provision of physical designs that hold tablets in a usable position and the reduced need for built-in screens and on board entertainment systems. We want to see the streaming of content to passengers’ devices and apps that enable extra on board and pre/post board function (seat reservations, ticket purchase, meal ordering, etc.)

LU: Aside from your own, which design within rail (interior or exterior) from around the world do you most admire?

BO: It’s difficult to identify one rail project as a favourite but the exteriors of the Shinkansen trains (see top and second image) are very impressive and the German ICE trains provide some very good interiors. I am also very fond of the interior and exterior of the old Bud Silver Zephyr cars because when they were designed they were so far ahead of anything else, they look great, and the interiors offered excellent comfort and amenity.

LU: And finally, I know that you James worked in the 1970s on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, are there any particular memories from that job that stick in the mind? I know our readers

JP: It was thanks to the vision of James Sherwood that The Venice Simplon Orient Express (see image right for cabin design) project was undertaken and was the first transport project that James undertook, as such it was a great experience in terms of the process of interior design and getting to grips with all of the technical detailing that were involved in the construction and renovation of such iconic old vehicles. However, the principal memory is one of the first journey from London to Venice and ride on the UK Pullman cars and the Wagon Lits vehicles. After such a long and demanding project the feeling of satisfaction as the train went into service was immense and for that I shall always be indebted to Mr Sherwood and his team of people that enabled the project from inception to completion.

LU: Great, thanks very much to you both, looking forward to learning more as this area develops.

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