designer of the Virgin Pendolino talks planes and trains

Paul Priestman, talks about the passenger experience and what rail can do to catch up with the aviation industry.

Passenger experience today rules supreme in aviation. I remember the first project we did for an airline. In the late nineties, we designed the first lie flat seat for Virgin Atlantic. It might sound standard now – albeit only for Business and First Class passengers – but at the time, it was a great step forward in improving the passenger experience. And looking back, we see the impact it has had on the industry. It was a real catalyst for change.

The first two airlines to offer lie flat seats were British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. Where competition between airlines had previously been just on price, it was now about comfort, and which airline offered the best passenger experience. Other airlines caught on and cabin interiors are now one of the main tools that airlines use to differentiate themselves.

Arguably, there is less competition in rail, which – in the UK at least – consists mostly of single franchises running on particular lines. However, I would argue that the real competition lies with other modes of transport, particularly with car travel and short haul air travel.

As the environment and reducing carbon emissions continues to be a priority for governments at home and abroad, creating an attractive and comfortable rail offering to get passengers out of their cars and out of the air must become paramount for rail operators.

Some countries already offer a superior passenger experience on trains. We’ve been working in China for a few years now where the main high-speed trains include fully lie-flat rotating seats, so that passengers can always face the direction of travel. Carriages also include hot water dispensers so that passengers have access to tea. Whilst these may seem like small details, they are crucial to making passengers feel more comfortable.

In 2010, we designed a concept high-speed train to offer a vision of what the future of high-speed rail could look like in the UK. Our design included private berths in second class, which could be booked for business meetings or for families traveling together.

The First Class carriage stood out from your run of the mill First Class carriages today and included a luxurious bar, viewing platform and sofas more reminiscent of a high-end lounge. If we are going to offer a First Class product on rail, then it needs to be really First Class. If we’re going to lure passengers out of their cars – a comfortable, private environment – let’s offer them more than the alternative.

We also need to look at the ways in which the airline industry is embracing technology as part of the passenger experience. While the majority of rail passengers do have their own devices, whether tablets or mobile phones, there should be an opportunity for better integration of these within the fabric of trains, whether as a source of entertainment or information.

And it’s not just long journeys that could benefit from a better passenger experience. As designers across all modes of public transport, we regularly work on airport train services, both inter-terminal – such as Gatwick, which we designed a couple of years ago – or airport to city. The latter is one area that could hugely benefit from more design thinking. While it’s true that services like the Heathrow Express or the Arlanda Express in Stockholm, which is often lauded as one of the best airrail services in the world, offer a comfortable journey, we need to look at what passengers need and how to make the best use of time on that journey.

For business passengers, airrail services are often the last chance to connect to their e-mails before a flight, or upon landing, the first opportunity to get in touch with their office. Our LoungeLink concept included individual working stations with adjustable privacy screens that would enable passengers to maximise their time in transit. The concept also included check in stations, all with a view to offering a stress free travel experience from home to destination.

While the airline industry is by no means perfect, airlines have for the most part understood the value of offering passengers a superior interior product to stay competitive. In the UK, only Virgin, for whom we designed the Pendolino, sells an experience, rather than tickets. If we’re going to invest in new high-speed rail systems around the world, it’s imperative that the experience of those trains is the very best that it can be so that passengers actually use them.

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