Ceci N’est Pas Une Voiture

For various reasons this year I have travelled more kilometres in public transport than in cars. What did I discover?

2016 Alstom train interior
2016 Alstom train interior

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.

Detail; notice the mismatched radii on the corners. All those surfaces are totally flat.
Detail; notice the mismatched radii on the corners. All those surfaces are totally flat.

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

9 thoughts on “Ceci N’est Pas Une Voiture”

  1. Hmm. Must trains compete with cars on design? Where I live congestion and the cost/scarcity of parking in town drive me to take the train into the nearby city. If my care were the most comfortable best designed luxobarge possible the train would still win.

    1. They don´t have to compete with cars on design, they need to be designed to recognise that people use them. For many people the coldness of the train is a further reason not to use this form of transport. I don´t think people ought to be given an excuse to stay in a car if a train is there for that kind of trip. More basically, this kind of design is impolite. Some people have no choice but to use a train and this interior abuses their dependence. Essentially I am applying David Pye´s moral argument for design. The commercial argument is important but secondary.

  2. Now this for me is a thought-provoking article, because it showcases to some degree better than I have read anywhere else, the absolute sterility in design of modern mass transit appliances. And why I feel constantly ill-at-ease when forced to use them, particularly in off-peak hours, when few humans dot the desolate plastic landscape to relieve the distress of experiencing a desert of uniform blandness and uninterest.

    Recent experiences in new Boeing 737-800 aircraft flying part way across my homeland of Canada for five hours one way, six the other due to the jetstream effects, had begun to coalesce my thinking about the lack of warmth in accomodating passengers comfortably, and I’m not speaking of arm or legroom, or the complete lack of what a reasonable person would describe as food.

    There were simply no touches of convenience. The touch screens did not work, and altered angle when the seat in front was tilted since no adjustment was provided. The seats were glowingly described as leather, but no mention was made of course, of which unknown breed of animal had donated its skin to the cause. It reminded me of the elephant-hide vinyl with which the seats of my first car, a secondhand 1960 Volvo PV544, were upholstered, only worse. And while Volvo had taken the trouble to use two contrasting colours, red and white, and had remembered to put about three inches of foam padding and springs under their skins, Boeing used only dark blue, and less than an inch of foam. My bony behind was in agony even before takeoff. Sheer purgatory. But advertised as luxury, in the modern idiom of doublespeak. A park bench covered in fake leather and virtually no padding is still a park bench, except to marketers.

    The 1960 Volvo had convenient three-point safety belts; the Boeing no more than Douglas dished out for the DC-3 in 1935, and probably less, since no stitched airline logo enhanced their abject plain-ness.

    Even Nissan with its drab grey interiors is far more enticing to enter than these mass transportation devices. So, I must say thanks for examining this situation in a rather unique way. I can now pass the time internally critiquing the poor design as I travel by module in future. More interesting by far than the experience heretofore, as it provides needed diversion.

    Do Alstom’s prestige carriages such as the TGV exhibit a more mature and engaging style? Enquiring minds need to know.

    1. I am really glad you liked this article. It´s part of my crystallising understanding of design. I have another article on an example of a good train interior coming up.
      It´s not very easy to find certifiable images of the current TGV. Sam the Eagle will doubtless find something though. I saw some interesting vintage photos of 80s interiors and some CGI images of newer interiors. Identifying what they really were was not hard.
      This research shows me that functionalism as a design philosophy fails the moment something is at the engineering minimum. Alas, that seems to be the goal of many architects and designers in some areas. I saw houses in Denmark recently that differed from industrial structures only in that they were painted. No other details signified human presence. The Alstom train here is close that industrial minimum and the worse for it. I will say a bit more about this soon.
      Thanks very much for your comment which is the kind of feedback that makes DTW so pleasing to do.

    2. I am not very familiar with TGVs having travelled on them, unlike Eurostar which is of course a variation on the same theme by the same manufacturer. The trains that have been in service for the the last 20 years are quite cosy and warm, if a bit cramped. I got to sit in one of the new ones (made by Siemens) at Christmas and these have definitely adopted the cold commercial look that seems to be ‘de rigueur’ these days…

    3. I meant to write ‘I am not very familiar with TGVs having RARELY travelled on them’…

  3. Is it just the workings of my mind, or is the seat fabric pattern supposed to represent the female genitalia?

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