How can you design a train with so many mistakes?

*** 11/11/16 UPDATE: I have finally, received a reply to my complaints about the new 700 Class trains. See addition at base of post ***

For my sins I spend around 15 hours a week commuting on the Thameslink line between London and Brighton.

Since the franchise passed to Govia, we have been promised new trains. It now appears we have them. I have got on new rolling stock twice today and my bewilderment over the things that appear to be wrong has only increased.

The good points

I should acknowledge some improvements. The on board electronic information (see main photo) is much better and clearer, including details on how busy carriages are and whether the on board toilets are working.

The awkward interconnecting doors have largely been removed. They were rubbish and broke continually. 

What isn’t so good?

In two journeys, this is what I’ve noticed so far.

1) The number of seats has been reduced. This seems like an enormous issue. The trains may now be 12 coaches long, but giving people more room in which to stand isn’t exactly a progressive move.

Given the frequency with which coaches seem to break I can’t see 12 coach trains being constant. 

2) There are no arm-rests. If you cut the number of seats you could at least make it comfy for those who aren’t standing. But no. Anyone with an oversized rear end or sharp elbows will make their companion very uncomfortable,

Is this really such a cost-saving against passenger comfort?

3) No increase in baggage storage. The Thameslink line travels to 2 of the country’s biggest airports: Gatwick and Luton. Lots of people use the train to get to and from these airports and travel with large suitcases. 

There never used to be adequate space to stow this luggage. There still isn’t. A massive oversight

New train4) Tables and seat back trays removed. These are commuter trains. People spend hours on them (see para 1). This means they want to work to make the most of their time. 

They will now have to awkwardly balance their laptop on their knees (yes, I know it’s called a ‘lap’top for a reason),  which isn’t hugely comfortable. 

5) No charging points. Intermediate rolling stock had plug sockets to allow phone/laptop charging. No more!

I tweeted this oversight and received this reply from @TLRailUK 

Why would you build something without and then be forced to add afterwards?

Where are the user needs in all of this?

When you design a new product, you ask what customers want! In a commuter train, you’d be looking for comfort, useful functionality, seats… you get my drift?

I get the impression these new trains have been designed with not a single piece of customer feedback. 

I pay Govia in excess of £4k a year to use their trains. The least they could do is solicit opinons from me (or people like me). 

Prove me wrong Govia, or at the very least show me what audience research you did.

Response from Thameslink

‘Thank you for getting in touch and letting us know your views on our new Class 700 trains.
You have mentioned a number of issues and I am grateful to provide more information on some of these:

In regards to your comments on the sockets, most tablets, smartphones and laptops have good battery life – iPads, for example, offer up to 10 hours and laptops between three to nine hours. As very few Thameslink passengers will have journeys of not much more than an hour – with many journeys of only around 30 minutes- it did not justify the large cost and significant weight increase (the trains were specified to be lightweight) that would be incurred installing power points throughout 1,140 carriages.

My reaction: what a joke! Don’t put plugs in because everyone gets on a train with a fully-charged device, don’t they?

In regards to the tables and seat-back flip-down tables, passenger research for rail watchdog Passenger Focus and London TravelWatch carried out to inform the design of the train showed that people recognised the main priority was to maximise capacity so they were not incorporated into the specification. Seat tables can also slow people down getting on and off trains – and we’ll have just 30 seconds to get people on and off these new trains in central London.

My reaction: the thought that people are unable to prepare for their station and that a lack of table gives extra time to get off is ludicrous. The reduced ‘capacity’ no seat back table offers is irrelevant compared to the usefulness of having a table; somewhere to rest a drink, a snack, a book or paper.

However, the DfT is exploring opportunities for fitting charging points for laptops and other mobile devices on the new Thameslink trains. A decision will be made by Ministers. The DfT is also working with Siemens and GTR on a proposal to provide seat back tables. These would be retro-fitted to trains that have already been built.

My reaction: the subtext here is Govia knows the decision was wrong.

Regarding the seats, the design was undertaken by Fainsa, on behalf of First Capital Connect (pre-2014) in conjunction with Siemens. The design is the same as current 387 seats, and a number of other fleets, which have been in service for several years. Its ergonomic design has been created to be comfortable for people of varying heights.

The final choice of design was done in conjunction with stakeholders and user groups, such as London Travel Watch and Passenger focus and included testers of all shapes and sizes including those who were over 6ft and comfort improvements were made to the original design as a result of this.

The materials and design have been chosen to be hard wearing, being able to withstand usual and unusual wear and tear including vandalism (slashing/burning of seats) and meets all current standards including crash worthiness and fire.
I hope this information is of use and please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused.

My reaction: the design may be the same, but they’ve clearly used less padding and the removal of arm rests means they’re closer together.

I would also like to thank you again for taking the time to contact us and let you know that we appreciate your comments. these have been passed on to the relevant team as feedback.’

Overall, at least they’ve replied, but they still ignored my questions about arm rests, baggage space and reduced seating.

As I understand, the trains were ordered by the previous operator (Thameslink) so Govia didn’t have a say. However, they clearly decided to bite the bullet and not make any improvements before putting them into service.

Now they’re probably ruing that decision as they will have to take the new trains out of service in order to retro-fit plug sockets and seat back tables.

15 thoughts on “How can you design a train with so many mistakes?

  1. I travel daily on London Midland trains in and out of London. London Midland are also part of Govia.Some years back they introduced long awaited new stock. At the time the trains were either really quite old, or were fairly new trains, with 4 seats across.

    The new ones came with 5 seats across the carriage – a 2 and a 3 arrangement, which meant that the seats were very narrow. On the 3 seat banks in particular this means at crowded times people deliberately make it difficult for people to sit 3 abreast. This leads to fewer seats being used, and less space for standing. Pretty much everyone on the crowded trains is uncomfortable – seated or standing. They also removed all armrests, all back of seat trays, all tables, and most litter bins. This makes taking a cup of coffee on board almost impossible. Eventually after lots of complaints they agreed that the new ‘new’ trains which have come on line in the past year or so, would go back to being 4 seats across. They now once again have armrests, trays, tables, and litter bins. Many seats now have plug sockets for charging laptops and phones etc. So much better – but why did they waste all that money in between times ?

  2. Didn’t anyone think about how humans use trains? The new Thameslink trains have in effect reintroduced third class back to rail travel. Ironing board seats, no leg room or width, no accommodation for laptops. Twice the price of US commuting and barely usable. Every journey home is so uncomfortable I have physical discomfort for the rest of the evening. If you read this and have the same issue say so – this is a politician’s decision originally and to fix. The service is run for government by operators so don’t be fooled into seeing this as another Govia problem.

    • I think the key issue is how Govia sees Thameslink compared with its other brands: Gatwick Express and Southern. You will not notice this if you buy a weekly or monthly tickets as the ticket allows you to go on all three brands from Brighton to London. However, buying a day single or return ticket is cheaper on Thameslink before 9am, and clearly Govia’s plan is to reflect that difference in price in terms of of quality and service. Thameslink trains are more likely to be slower, and remembering the old rolling stock (luckily almost phased out), much more uncomfortable. This has been carried forward to the new stock. Going on a standard Southern train feels like a treat in comparison.

      The problem is that for people working at London Bridge, the City or further north, have to ride on a second rate train. I too am amazed at the very low spec for new trains almost utalitarian. I note first class on these trains have tables and armrests and power sockets, so why do give these small benefits to all.

      Travelling on this line, it is hard not to be cynical about Govia, judging by their handling of the Southern Railway strike crisis, but this is not doing them any favours. My take is that Govia is trying to make Thameslink the budget line, therefore convince some of us us to pay more to go on Gatwick Express and Southern or upgrade to first class.

  3. I agree entirely. I travel from Bedford to Croydon and I’m gobsmacked how wrong they got this. I’m 6’3″ and I simply don’t fit with the lack of leg room and the seats are as hard as granite. I’m getting a bad back as the weeks roll on. I’m probably going to change my job over this, not that Govia would care I guess.

    Fingers crossed they do actually refit these trains, they are actually a disgrace.

  4. I could not agree more.
    I was incensed for much the same reasons and wrote to my MP pointing some of this stuff out.
    I have received a reply from the current rail minister (Paul Maynard) dated 14 Sept 2016 saying “we expect to finalise the contractual arrangements so the changes can be made in the next fewe months”.

    I would be happy to share this letter with you if that might help! I am planning to follow up, but the more people that do the more pressure we can bring to bear.

    I am tempted to declassify first class until these fold down trays are retro-fitted and I agree it does smack of a tacit acknowledgement of design failure.

    • Thanks Andy. It’s just such a waste of time and money. They’re now going to have to take the new rolling stock out of action while they retro-fit plug sockets at the very least, which will inevitably cause problems to passengers.

      We also have very active MPs in our neck of the woods in Caroline Lucas and Peter Kyle who are incensed by the way Govia has acted across the board in the past few months. Doubtless this story will run and run…

    • I agree, too. The relatively new class 387 trains may have the same seats as the class 700s, but they also have plug sockets; reading lights; full size tables in the face-to-face seats; tip-up tables in the ‘airline style’ seats; armrests, and crucially spacing between the seats and the window-side wall, which prevents ‘overspill’ and so each passenger has more personal space.

      Even the 377/5s and some of the 319s (the 319/2 variant) have tables, in both the ‘3+2’ and ‘2+2’ seating areas. When I complained to GTR about the class 700s I was told that ‘they’re short-distance commuter trains, and fitting tables and armrests would significantly slow down boarding and alighting times at the central London stations’ (funny how this doesn’t apply to first class passengers!) – and that they were only adhering to the DFT specifications for the rolling stock anyway (which was ordered by the previous franchise holder, First Group. Personally; if they’d had a free choice they probably would have ordered 387s instead to have standardisation across their fleet).

      Well; I don’t consider 1 hour 20 minutes from Brighton to Farringdon, or over 2 hours from Brighton to Luton Airport (a trip I make at least 5 times a month for business) short commuter journeys’.

      It’s more than a bit galling that we will now have to endure the 700s for the next 25 years or so, whilst passengers making the short 30-minute trip from Victoria to Gatwick on Gatwick Express will get to travel on the vastly superior 387s.

      I sincerely hope that GTR’s promise to retro-fit the 700s with tables and plug sockets, to at least bring some semblance of comfort and convenience, but I’m not holding my breath!

  5. Would be great to see that letter Andy, as I couldn’t agree more. With my job moving from West London to East London, I’ve gone from Southern to Thameslink. I’d heard about the new Class700 trains and was looking forward to it. Only to find them being the Ryan Air of train travel. The lack of seat back fold down tray and arm rests are the biggest issue I think. No where to put coffee of water down, or use laptops, or place iPad / phone while watching catch up video – all very common, and important for the modern commuter, but for some reason ignored in the design.

    I’d be really keen to find out progress or the retrofit, or indeed approx dates when it might be so. Failing that – a good place to know where and how to complain to speed up the decsion!

  6. I agree entirely with the comments and thanks for writing about this – there isn’t much out there on this. When I first travelled on the trains I was generally gobsmacked that the DoT procurement department could have approved the interior design of these appalling trains. I felt that the removal of seat back trays in standard but there inclusion in first class represented something laughably and profoundly soul destroying about the DoT. Despite the “progress” undoubtedly less comfortable than the previous rickety trains.

    • Thanks Tim. Sadly, I think we all know that recent administrations are all for cost-cutting – passenger welfare doesn’t appear to be top of their agenda.

      I also fear we’re now stuck with these trains for many, many years. The early evening train I catch is regularly one of the old-school ones and I can’t believe how excited I am to see it pull in every day!

  7. I was studying mechanical engineering, my specialisation was trains and my master thesis was about interior design of train mainly seats and organisation AND there is something I have to get out of my system.

    I want to share some info why you are right and it can be deduced to 2 areas:

    1. Money per passenger seat is low, dont remember exact numbers but I remember lectures at our school from people who worked in railway. Rails have to be donated by state, even than many trains are in the loss especially regional trains, long distance trains are not that problematic, its mainly because regional trains have frequent stops and to put motion into 500 tons behemoth takes alot of juice.They even sell trains under price and many times the only profit they get is trough maintenance. Wages in Railway sector are one of the lowest in mechanical engineering. They are trying to reduce weight by every means necessary to when you have to move daily 500km than energy consumption is Quite high and every weight saved makes train more profitable. But comfort should be number 1 priority nevertheless.

    2. 2 words UIC standards, the train standards. I changed my specialisation thanks to UIC standards, yes its THAT horrible. I will tell you how absurd they are, I tried to copy car seat from a sports car that was designed with orthopedics and fit them into train, they were delightfully comfortable,one of the best seats I have ever seat in and I had access to them so it was only matter of measuring. And now comes the funny part according to UIC standards these seats that were designed with doctors, professionals in ergonomics and orthopedics are not ergonomic and do not met UIC criteria….I am not making this up I wish I was, yes its THAT RETARTED. Even my mentors in company that is making trains said that those standards were lastly actualised before 30 years, 30 YEARS!!!! That trains are lightyears away from other transportion in terms of seats and comfort. I tried to make seats larger but NOPE standards wont allow me to, I tried to do seating rows more like in airplane NOPE standards wont allow me to, I tried to decorate interior somewhat NOPE standards wont allow me to, I tried to give more luggage space but again NOPE standards wont allow me to, optimalize interior space NOPE NOPE AND NOPE. Thats why every goddamn interior looks the same, every single train seat is the same because UIC standards are so stupid and strict in stupid things that its borderline stupid, the only way you can meet UIC criteria in terms of seats is to make them back breaking. Even my fathers friend who works his whole life in design of trains curses those standards. Even our lecturers and teachers at school literally said that UIC standards are brake to the evolution and modernisation of trains, but luckily everyone in railway industry is trying to make them obsolete but of course frenchies wont give up their buisness easily, even the prices for those standards are ludicrious. Making my master thesis was hair pulling experience but I managed to somewhat find roundabouts but they disgusted me so much that I literally changed specialisation its THAT horrible.

    Hope this clears alot of things up, dont damn designers, damn those french bureaucrats.

  8. Just wanted to add my voice to this. The post is a good one. For me, as a regular Brighton to Farringdon commuter, it simply isn’t true that very few people have journeys of not much more than an hour. Generally the train is half full when it leaves Brighton, and takes around 1hr45 mins. They all have access to the passenger stats and know that. Spilt cups of coffee because people juggle a laptop and a coffee and no tables. It is a tube train on an intercity route.

  9. I waned to add also that the seats are too small. I am a small person but my shoulder still spills over the gap and I guess the train is designed for skinny people and without the seat handle to seperate the seats makes it impossible not to invade another’s space. It seems to designed for uncomfortable travel.

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