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Recapturing the joy of public transport

Commissioners and designers need to rethink for a different world.

Lockdown enforced by the pandemic has had innumerable effects on all aspects of personal and business lives. The world will change although how much is far from clear. Socialisation will obviously return as quickly as possible but perhaps with some alterations as newly learned behaviours perhaps influence consumer and business thinking.

I have spent all my working life at the customer edge of the public transport world and my accumulated understanding of people, their behaviour and their needs coincides with two issues that in my view have evaded attention for too long and are timely for commissioners and designers to rethink for a different world.

Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable to go to a railway station for a night out. Then came the fabulous rebuilt St. Pancras (and the stunning hotel) in 2007 followed by Kings Cross station rebuilding. Both represent the very best of sensitive refurbishment of wonderful buildings, operational efficiency and intelligent usage of public realm. It is commercial interests that (with proper safeguards) will generate new public amenities, particularly bars, restaurants and cafes that will breath new life into spaces both large and small that are no longer needed for railway use. Visionary landlords are needed which in the case of railway properties are Network Rail and various train operators. The challenges for commissioners and designers will be reinvent beautiful social spaces for the benefit of communities served and those arriving and departing with the word ‘destination’ added to the mix. The Danish word ‘hygge’ is entering our language. Its meaning embraces warmth, comfortable conviviality and wellbeing which perfectly describes a mood we crave after such a punishing year. It isn’t to be readily found in our contemporary hospitality sector.

The Stalybridge Buffet Bar on the windswept platform of the Greater Manchester station is a superb example of a bar (with many original fittings) that serves great food and drink with a mixture of public, semi public and private spaces and when I have visited exudes incredible warmth and vitality. The bar attracts hoards of locals and visitors and is the perfect example of a brilliant venue in a rather unlikely location. It’s the ‘hygge’ that makes it work so well.

Great sensitive design, whether modern or traditional, makes life considerably better and the challenge for a different era is to embrace comfort and flexibility of use into a brief and project delivery.

The new world will be drawn to a new design mood, spaces that are brave and visually arresting perhaps, but safe, comfortable and flexible enough to be both private or public. I love to travel by train, but modern carriage interior design has wilfully diminished my enjoyment of this once great travelling experience to a vanishing point.

I yearn for soft comfortable seats with decent legroom without the need to play leg chess with strangers. I would very much like to sit and look out of a large window and not stare at a hefty window pillar. I would like individual reading lamps and a substantial reduction of glaring fluorescent lights that assaults my eyes and cleverly reveals hair colours and wrinkles best left in hiding. I would like large doors and enough room to store luggage. I would like to patronise a decent buffet. I would particularly enjoy some privacy with compartments or partitioned spaces to shield me from incessant passing fellow travellers. It would be good to plug my phone into an accessible socket and have a table upon which to perch my coffee cup. I would like interior colour schemes and finishes that don’t look like a hospital waiting room. I could go on....

It is the ultimate paradox that as comfort (and ambience) in homes and most cars has steadily improved, rail carriage interior design has regressed to become depressing and uncomfortable. I await commissioners and designers who actually care about their customers and can deliver relief from the needless bean counting austerity.

Alas, until the railway commissioning bodies see light, my use of an environmentally unfriendly car will continue. I value my comfort too much.

Written by:

Michael Walton,

Industry Specialist, Inspired &Co


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