The Great Train Reverse-Snobbery

2023 DISCLAIMER: The following article was written in June of 2020 but never published for fear of touching a (sort of) controversial topic in a (very) controversial time. While some of the specifics have changed, and certain claims I may shy away from now, the general thrust of the article is still valuable and you may find it interesting.

(original) DISCLAIMER: This one is very public transport heavy, and might bore the pants off you if you have little interest in the topic. I wrote it mainly to make a point for other aficionados of transport, but for general consumption, it is a little less than ideal. There, please do read on, but consider yourself warned.

Dear reader,

It has been some time (in fact just over a year) since I posted anything on this worthy if neglected little blog. I offer no excuses for this rather sorry state of affairs, but I would ask you, dear reader, to bear in mind that life can get in the way.

Now, this article concerns public transport, which is hardly surprising if you have been around here a while. However, if you have been paying attention to the United Kingdom or indeed the world recently, you may have noticed that the use of public transport has been discouraged. You all know why, and frankly I cannot be bothered to discuss it here.

New Trains; Basic Problems

If you have travelled on (so-called) LNER (no relation whatsoever to the actual London & North Eastern Railway, which was wound up in 1947) or (so-called) GWR (no relation whatsoever to the actual Great Western Railway, which was also wound up in 1947), you have probably noticed a change in trains.

Furnished by the Intercity Express Program, these operators have taken delivery of brand-new trains supplied by Hitachi. The majority of these trains are bi-modes, meaning they can run on diesel or electric power, and they represent a sizeable investment, being designed to last for the next 30 years.

This sounds like a good thing, but sadly these trains have fallen a bit short of the mark. Apart from the front, the exteriors are a bit… workmanlike. There are, for example, large gaps between coaches where various cables are strung, which is not only a bit ugly but also potentially dangerous (Network Rail pointed out that in theory, some vagabond could climb up them and access the train roof, leading to a lot of faffing around trying to find a solution). I suppose these gaps might also add drag, but I’m no aerodynamicist.

Another questionable aesthetic choice is having doors which are set a few inches back from the bodyside of the train, rather than being flush (that is, in line with the bodyside) on the older trains. Again, I do ponder how good that is for aerodynamics, but I can understand this as an engineering choice; all the door has to do is slide to one side or the other, rather than having to push outwards and then slide. Complexity, as they say, is the enemy of reliability, but in the context of some of the other design choices, this one is slightly baffling. (I might also mention the lack of rain strips to keep the doors free of dripping rain, but this problem may now have been solved since).

All the above said, it’s inside the trains where things start to fall apart (thankfully not literally, they’re actually pretty well put together).

Inside one GWR example I had the dubious pleasure of travelling on, I was first presented with a toilet, which, having not sensibly planned the trip, I was in need of. Most normal (non disabled) toilets on trains feature a normal push door to go in, that springs shut just in case. Not so here, where the door slides aside on runners. It is still spring loaded, but I do have to question why this design was adopted; in theory it saves space from the normal door, but in practice most people shut the door before using the loo (even if they don’t it springs shut). The extra complexity of having runners that chewing gum and other detritus can get stuck in just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Still, the toilet worked fine and, unlike a lot of trains, washing and drying my hands was a doddle.

Moving into the passenger saloon, I noticed that on both the LNER and GWR examples, the interior is very bright (goodness knows what the harsh LEDs are like at night, but they’re fine in the day), and legroom is good. Unfortunately, that’s where the good points end. Both examples have a rather cheap-looking bright green dot matrix screen for destinations. LNER’s trains have a garish bright red strip above the windows, and GWR’s have a garish green one instead. Both look very cheap and naff.

The seats are famously uncomfortable. Having travelled on both the LNER and GWR examples, I can confirm both are bone-breakingly hard, and bolt upright. Seat padding has been kept to a bare minimum. Hitachi claim they have been “ergonomically designed” but for whom I am unsure; being an average height man of average build, if they don’t feel comfortable to me, I doubt they’re going to work for most people.

I mentioned earlier that simplified doors seemed bizarre, given some other design choices. Apart from the toilet doors, this one really rubs me (and many of the traincrew) up the wrong way. There is a reservation system which has both a light (red, green or orange depending on potential occupancy) but also an LCD screen showing where seats are reserved from and to. Quite apart from the fact that the light is redundant because of the screen, this fails on numerous occasions; many GWR examples I observed going around with tickets in the back of the seats, like the old trains did.

Why, if the aim was simple and reliable, was such a reservation system fitted? If they were desperate to have an electronic system, Cross Country’s “Voyager” trains have been going around for nearly 20 years with one that seems to work reliably, and LNER had just invested in an e-ink based system on their old trains. Besides, if reliability was key, why not just stick to the old system that the traincrew are already having to switch back to? A ticket, after all, doesn’t have any electronics to go wrong. The mind boggles.

That’s standard class, but first class, I’m sorry to report , is no better. Both GWR and LNER (in their case thanks to the ill-fated Virgin Trains East Coast) had refurbished old trains with very nicely done first class sections. Such sections included leather seats, generous padding, beautiful carpets, curtains, window views from all seats, among other delights. The new trains have none of that. 

I have been told that the new first class seats are designed to be more supportive, and get more comfortable as the journey progresses. I would humbly submit that this is a cop-out answer; a first class seat should be comfortable from the moment one sits down to the moment one alights at their destination, even if that’s only a short distance away.

For Comparison…

So, why am I telling you all this? Why, I hear you cry, are you complaining about new trains? Well, it’s because of all the ways these new trains have been spun to look like the best thing since sliced bread (or colour television, depending on your preferred analogy). I have been reminded time and again of Hitachi’s pedigree in Japan, and of the fantastic electrical efficiency of the various systems, and of the excellent availability rate, and of the operational advantages of splitting and joining trains.

Lo, you cry, that’s all good stuff right? Yes. But passengers do not ride on pedigree, or electrical efficiency, or availability rates, or operational advantages. They ride on seats on trains. All these small (and not so small) niggles serve to remind the passenger that they are, after all, a number on a DfT spreadsheet. The attention to detail in the passenger experience has been sorely lacking, as I have demonstrated, especially considering the changes needed are not huge. Comfortable seats, until recently, were not too much to ask.

One of course could say, ah, well, you said first class was rubbish, so maybe just get rid of it? The argument often goes that since so few actually use first, it should be dispensed with. I think this argument is, frankly, total bollocks.

To explain why I think this, we have to look at car manufacturers. For the sake of example, let us pick Audi. Most cars that Audi sells will be fairly ordinary hatchbacks, saloons and SUVs. However, Audi also makes the R8, a supercar that is both extremely fast and luxurious. A very small percentage of Audi’s customers buy R8s, but they still make them. Why? Because it’s aspirational; one day, if you worked extremely hard and got very lucky, you might be able to own an R8. For now though, you’ll settle for an A3.

The same is true of airlines; you might not be able to afford to fly first on a top airline, but you know that it is a fantastic experience, and you’ll get a small slice of that in economy.

And the same really ought to be true of trains; it certainly has been at certain points in the past, but the idea that first class should be desirable seems to have fallen out of fashion. Instead it seems to be considered an extra that is thrown in, to spend as little money as possible on, because (the thinking goes) people only pay so they get a seat and the rest is frivolous. Not so, as we have seen.

Ah yes, I hear you say, but that’s all very well for airlines and car manufacturers, but it won’t possibly work in boring old public transport like buses and trains. But the thing is, it is working for the former.

Let me introduce you to the No. 36 bus, operating between Ripon and Leeds, in West Yorkshire. The list of high spec features on the 14 buses operating this service is mind boggling. Leather seats come as standard; but not just any. On the lower deck, one will find normal bus seats, but in quilted leather (yes, quilted) with plenty of padding. 4G WiFi is standard, as are USB charging points and wood-effect floors, as well as a crisp, glass-framed staircase. The rear seats even have tables.

Upstairs, one will find full leather coach seats, lavishly padded and placed in a 2+1 configuration for extra space. To top that, the ceiling has glass panels to allow extra light during the day, and a view of the stars at night. All of this is wrapped in slick branding, and in fact the whole design was coordinated with transport design firm Best Impressions.

The price for all this? For all 14 vehicles, £3.3 million. This sounds high, but per vehicle this works out at just under £236,000. Compare with the cost per vehicle of the Intercity Express trains mentioned earlier, which cost between £2.4 – £2.8 million per carriage. Obviously, the engineering needed is far more complex for a fast train than a bus, but the point is, these kinds of features do not have to be that expensive, in the grand scheme of things.

In the bus industry, these ideas are far from niche; in Birmingham, National Express West Midlands have implemented a large number of “Platinum” routes, with buses at a much higher spec (Wi-Fi, charge points, leather headrests, comfier seats, more space, better floors, a well coordinated identity throughout, and so on and so forth). In fact, all the major bus operators either have premium brands or have made significant improvements.

Ah well, you say, but that’s still a different industry. And besides, don’t railways have different safety standards? Quite aside from the fact that train collisions are far less common, these safety standards have not prevented operators in the past from coming up with fantastic interior design. Or, indeed, refitting existing trains.

I will reference here the rather ill-fated (for numerous reasons, but not this one) Virgin Trains East Coast. Despite knowing their trains were going to be replaced in just a handful of years, VTEC decided to spend £21 million refurbishing and overhauling every single carriage in their fleet, in what they called “Project 21“. £21 million sounds like a lot, but this had to stretch over 401 coaches; this means that per carriage, they were only spending on average just under £53,000, cheaper still than the No. 36 bus (just a quarter of the price, in fact).

For this money, they managed to afford new carpets throughout, new first and standard class seats (first class seats wide, leather clad and heavily padded, standard in cloth, but still with a good deal of padding). New table tops were also added, along with repainted toilet fittings, new artwork, new finishes in multiple areas, and improved toilet doors. Outside, the striking new VTEC livery (designed by Sam Jessup, at the time working for the same Best Impressions we mentioned earlier) was applied quickly using a vinyl wrap.  The overall effect was a dramatic update in comfort and general appearance, a much more professional impression than is gained with the newer trains.


And now, many, many words in, I shall come to my point. I’m not the first to observe this, but many in the industry and more widely feel that any money not spent on “making the trains run on time” is wasted, and sneer at those who suggest any other course of action. It is true that the basic product of the railway is punctual travel, but there are many limiting factors, and throwing more money at the problem does not appear to be working. I hope it’s also clear that in the grand scheme of things, making passenger experience better does not have to be expensive.

And, while I did say I would not touch on Covid 19, I will say this. Before this crisis, there was great concern about the capacity of railways; trying to squeeze yet more people onto limited trains. In all this excitement, people began to be viewed increasingly as a commodity to be transported. However, people are now being discouraged from travelling, and it is uncertain whether they will return; point being, the task is not now merely to accommodate; we must attract passengers back onto trains, and a properly presented, comfortable service will help us do that.


  1. Dominic Meakin Avatar
    Dominic Meakin

    An excellent article. If anything, the points are even more relevant now, especially with the DfT forcing many operators to abandon 1st, while the ones that remain are by far the most mediocre of the lot that have provided 1st class (“Great” Northern, “LNER”, &c.)


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