For various reasons this year I have travelled more kilometres in public transport than in cars. What did I discover?
One thing is that cutting corners on the design of trains is a real false economy. The train shown here is a commuter carriage made by Alstom. The argument they’d make is that cutting the cost of the carriage keeps ticket prices down and attracts passengers. I’d argue that the cost of making this carriage something fit for humans is nugatory given the service life of the device. And since the passenger is probably comparing life in a car to life in a train, the train trip would have to be incredibly cheap for the cold brutality of this interior to be discounted.
I make this point as a fan of trains. Train travel is something I enjoy mostly as I get to read, sleep or work or all three during my regular commute. And I have really loved some of my longer trips across Europe. However, a lot of people who might be persuaded to swap car travel for rail are lost because they are asked to endure cold, hard and coldly lit boxes such as the one shown here. Even the lighting is designed to make life seem harder, more brutish and dispiriting.
Let’s start with the hard trim. I counted 40 major pieces of plastic which is about the same number found inside a passenger car. It takes exactly the same amount of time to model a peice of plastic that’s 33 cm long as one that is 200 cm long. Not one of the pieces of trim on this train had been modelled with lead in curvature and not one main surface had any crowning. That means every item had been modelled with the breeze-block hardness of a photocopier. Then the colours: everything except the seats and a few minor bars was grey. The floors were vinyl from wall to wall. And the seats were hard and too upright.
The meaning of all this is that the train interior looks as if it is not designed for people. It is an industrial space with all the allure of a production line. There is no passenger car made today at any price that has a less desirable interior than this train. And yet a cheap car is what these trains are competing against. Of a piece with my views on the value of design, I can say that this train does not acknowledge the humanity of the users even if the users can’t articulate why this is such a hostile space. Thoughtful design means finessing the forms and the joins and using colours and materials that signal comfort and not durability. It means acknowledging the humanity of the occupants.
If public transport is to win car drivers over they have to begin by offering interiors at least as good as the lowest price car a person can buy. This kind of thing is not that.