INDUSTRIAL design is the last layer of engineering, not only for rolling stock but infrastructure, signalling and stations. The train, specifically the interior, constitutes the final element of industrial design and is the element immediately noticeable to passengers. Interior design therefore has equal ability to make a rail journey or commute a pleasure, or turn it into a dreaded experience.
The interior is a total envelope for the passengers during their rail journey. Safety is undisputedly the single most important aspect of a rail vehicle's design and engineering, notwithstanding the crashworthiness and other technologies applied to each and every new coach, including the crush zones and energy-absorbing surfaces and seats. But these are things which passengers do not perceive, and hopefully never will.
A passenger coach's safety requirements tend to make materials and components more expensive, and while the appearance of the interiors may or may not look costly, invariably it always is.
The main obstacle to achieving good design is having poor criteria. Criteria is to a new train design what a map is for a hiker; if you lack a map and a planned destination you will simply not get there. Understanding what the present and future ridership needs and wants are is the key to designing a train that will satisfy the majority of the riders in the short and long-term.
Through the years, I have participated in projects where upper management was willing to override designers' concepts that were firmly based on customer focus group findings. This is both shortsighted and self-defeating. Good design results from allowing designers to apply their creative gift to translate intelligently-gathered data based on the passengers' and community's needs.
There are several failings that come up in train interior design but I think seating is its Achilles heel. Even if the designers try to apply the best ergonomics, it is still quite often an uphill battle to try to design the one size fits all seat required for public transport vehicles.
Poor lighting is also high on the list of failings. We do not pay enough attention to providing adequate levels of lighting without embodying the charm of a surgeon's operating table. I believe there is lots of room for improvement in this area.
Colours and texture play a great part in making the commute or journey a pleasurable experience. In North America, 95% of all vehicles are grey and blue because the top decision makers felt no one would blame them for that choice. The problem is that this "safe" choice yields train interiors that nobody likes.
New interior design does carry an inherent risk of not being accepted. However, when properly executed, good design will be embraced and soon accepted as the "cool" scheme everybody wants.
To achieve good design a skilled industrial design team has to be empowered to suggest innovative ideas that, however small, will add up to a better travel experience.
This group has to be an integral part of the engineering team in the project from the very start, to impart a deep sense of proportional aesthetic, appealing colours and textures to that critical last layer of engineering. An industrial designer called late into a project morphs into a decorator, and not a very effective one at that.
Accessibility continues to be undervalued as a vehicle for improving the interior of trains for all riders. A radical approach is needed to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other accessibility norms, one that yields compliance as well as a common benefit for all riders. Accessibility should integrate disabled customers in as seamless a manner as possible.
Integrating the principles of Biophilic Design, a science pioneered by Dr Stephen Kellert, is an excellent approach. This is the theory and practice of bringing man-made environments, especially interiors to life.
This is not about using flower prints on the seat, but about creating an interesting environment with shapes, colours, materials and lighting that allows you to gaze at spaces and details in the vehicle reminiscent of nature, all of which would be more interesting than looking at your fellow rider's shoes.