The Train Carriage as Public Space
Russell Degnan

"He seemed to remember, or he retrospectively imagined, or he reconstructed, from films and books with the aid of a nostalgia as runny as old Camembert, a time when travellers crossing Europe by train would become acquaintances for the length of the journey. [...] Nowadays... yes, nowadays, the journey was too swift across this new European zollverein, the food was brought to you at your seats and no one smoked. The Death of the Compartment Train and its Effect Upon the Social Interaction of Travel."
Cross Channel - Julian Barnes

I had occasion to take a v-line service during the week, and was perhaps especially fortunate in that I got to travel on three different types of trains while doing so. Anybody who thinks I care exactly what type of train it was is sadly mistaken -- as are those of you who want to know how I got three trains on a return trip, who shall have to speculate. For what I want to talk about is the seating arrangements, which were, unfortunately, mostly the same.

The decline in compartment trains is pretty much a universal phenomenon, in that while a few rickety Italian trains still have them, I've not been on one in this state since the late 1990s. The decline in social interaction the quote alludes to is equally universal. I've not come close to experience the sort of shenanigans that accompanied a trip to Warnambool in a compartment train in any of the years since. Nowadays you are lucky to speak. Lucky even to look at another passenger.

And it has everything to do with the tendency of modern trains to face the vast majority of seats to the front.

It is not for this post to find out why, though I may return. I suspect it is related to a general wish many people have to travel facing forward, perhaps safety or economic reasons, and possibly, a designer fetish with air travel, where seats seemingly must face forward for landings and take-off.

However, I also think it is because designers are obsessed with individual comfort in a way that is naming them neglect a fundamental aspect of travel: a train is a public space.

It gets neglected because it is not obvious. A train, tram, or bus is primarily a device for moving people. And like our neglected streetscapes, which are perceived primarily as places for movement, and not interaction, the train suffers from a lack of public interaction to the extent that many people consider them unpleasant and unfriendly. And there is absolutely no reason why any piece of public space, be it a public park, a street, or a train carriage should be unpleasant, if some of the lessons of urban space use are absorbed.

Given quite a few urban designers don't seem to know anything about how people use public space, it should be no surprise that carriage designers don't either. However, there are two relative basic principles that tend to run through the work of both William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl, both encapsulated in the edge effect.

1. People want protection from their sides, so they feel comfortable. The first seats to fill up on a train will be at the window, and the more seats available at the edge of a space the better. Although they were principally done to increase standing room, and they never seem to be quite the right height, I like the rail seat-rests on trams because they let you stand/sit on the edge.

2. People want to be able to see other people. Seats that face each other, so you can talk to a friend are vastly superior to seats facing the same direction, and not just for tall freaks like me whose legs cramp up pressed against the back of another seat. People also sit at the ends of carriages, or in the door area so they can look out. Noone either sits, or stands in the aisle, exposed to others, and unable to look around.

I don't expect people to start conversations on trams and trains, any more than I expect people to start conversations with strangers in a public square. These principles run deeper, as they affect your general sense of enjoyment while retaining your personal space. Nor is this a call for a return to compartment carriages, which are, perhaps a little too intimate, but the train is a public space and should be designed with how people use (and should use) a public space in mind, by arranging the seats appropriately, and for preference, flexibly.

Many years ago I was asked to sit on several train seats to assess their comfort levels. It seemed pointless then, and it seems more pointless now, under travel conditions of great comfort but tedious boredom. Comfort on a train has no more relative importance than the comfort of your lounge room is to the enjoyment of that. I have yet to see a lounge room with a bunch of very comfortable couches facing a blank wall.

Passing Fancy 22nd July, 2006 21:17:37   [#] 


Right on Russ; the old dogboxes on V-Line trains were great.
Rob  27th July, 2006 19:26:57