All Aboard: Rail Travel After The Pandemic

Jon Lawson

We all know what the pandemic has done to the rail industry, but there is much cause for hope and optimism. Laurie Bushe shares a few insights into the future

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a monumental collapse in the number of rail passengers worldwide, with governments having to step in to support the industry with billions in subsidies. The collapse is threatening the financial viability of rail operators and has stalled many large-scale rail projects, often years in the making. But the outlook is not all bad.

SCI Verkehr expects the industry to grow by 2.2% annually to reach €213.2bn by 2024, albeit with the OEM market expected to be more severely affected in the short term as rail providers turn instead to the aftersales market. One bright spot on the horizon is that the pent-up demand for leisure travel during the pandemic is encouraging considerable numbers of people to return to rail and aviation in the periods where travel restrictions are eased.

At London-based design consultancy Tangerine, the belief is that the long-term effects of the pandemic are fundamentally changing people’s priorities, behaviour and values system – offering a significant challenge, but also a bountiful opportunity for rail to take advantage of a new mobility landscape.

Once travel freedoms widely resume, and if rail can offer flexible solutions that meet the diverse needs of different groups, it will be well placed to offer the best provisions for comfort, convenience and accessibility, at a reasonable price, while supporting people’s desire to travel with minimal environmental impact.

At the Red Cabin Railway Interior Innovation Summit, Virtual Live 2020, Tangerine’s chief creative officer Matt Round chaired a panel of experts from the German Rail Industry Association, Irish Rail and Deutsche Bahn DB on the subject of ‘Designing future rail interiors that are inclusive to all’. Collectively they stressed the importance of understanding the voice of the passenger in creating rail experiences that encourage people to use rail as their preferred mode of transport. They agreed that this understanding is key to getting to the heart of what is really important to the full range of consumer groups and user scenarios for how people want to travel.

During a series of workshops involving delegates from across the rail industry, including operators, OEMs and suppliers, three key passenger priorities for the development of future rail cars were identified: convenience versus other modes of transport, personalisation of your own experience, and post-Covid living – encompassing better hygiene, less crowding and more flexible use across the day for work and leisure.

The key passenger priorities identified are:

Convenience

  • Faster and more integrated connections to encourage people to adopt rail over other modes of transport;
  • Flexible, frictionless booking of services that are delivered seamlessly;
  • Improved wayfinding, journey information and ticketing that is integrated into an end-to-end passenger journey;
  • Fast connectivity to access real-time information and Wi-Fi entertainment.

Personalisation

  • Use of insight data to create individual passenger journeys that are tailored to individual needs;
  • Create adaptable and flexible products that can be tailored to suit all passenger personas;
  • Create train interiors that can accommodate, anticipate and be updated to match the increasingly high expectation of tomorrow’s passenger over the life of the product.

Post Covid-19 living

  • Desire for less space-constricted seating and less crowding on stations and in the train;
  • Seamless travel with fewer physical touch-points;
  • Visible evidence and supporting communication that carriages are clean and sanitised;
  • Train carriages designed to accommodate the huge rise in bicycle use and better link-up with other forms of mobility for onward journeys and last-mile connections;
  • Build on the political and social appetite for sustainable transportation.

Change that’s here to stay

During the pandemic, business travel and the number of people commuting to work has collapsed as offices have closed and employees have switched to remote working from home. These changes look set to permanently affect demand on rail. McKinsey reports that 52% of workers would prefer a more flexible working model of on-site and home-working post-pandemic, with a 25% drop in preference for exclusively on-site working. The British government has announced news of a unified rail system that will lead to more ”high-quality, consistent services, including flexible season tickets, changes that all reflect the changing habits of rail passengers.”

For regional, intercity and metro systems, this behavioural shift challenges the tireless drive over the last decade to increase capacity in rail cars and the frequency of trains in the network to accommodate busy peak travel times for workers.

In response to this challenge, Tangerine developed ’Metamorphosis’ - a concept for adaptable interiors for metro trains that could help passenger numbers to bounce back in the post-Coronavirus era.

The design features slidable screens that can be deployed to create smaller zones or ‘travel bubbles’ during high-risk, low-demand periods of pandemics, allowing key workers and those that cannot work remotely to safely travel socially distanced. Centrally located flexible seating angles passengers away from each other, reducing the risk of infection still further while also increasing the passenger flow. Health and safety innovations include a localised air-filtration system that constantly changes air, a touchless hand-sanitation point in the vestibule, and QR codes placed at certain points that act as a supporting Track and Trace system.

Traffic light-style illuminations around the doors, supported by passenger information screens both on the train and the platform, help distanced boarding and alighting. When there is a low health risk, the interior dividers can slide away and the flip-down seating maximises the carriage space to cater for busier services.

“This design concept goes beyond quick fixes in response to Covid-19 that would be unsuitable once the risk of the virus subsides, and instead uses the opportunity to propose a better metro train that can increase capacity as well as minimise the future risk of disruption due to other novel viruses,” says Tangerine CEO and founder Martin Darbyshire.

Growth in leisure travel

Leisure travel has traditionally been treated as an off-peak phenomenon, whereby rail operators try to claw back occupancy numbers with fare discounting and flexible return booking. Pre-Covid, a combination of stable growth and discounting fares meant operators were rather good at taking advantage of this. For example, in the UK, ORR data records that passenger revenue grew 9% in real terms in the decade leading up to 2018/19.

But with the shift to flexible, hybrid home and office working, peak use of rail services will inevitably flatten out and spread across the week. This presents an opportunity to better accommodate for leisure travel on rail services. For instance, for some time now, Eurostar’s peak travel times have been Friday and Sunday due to weekend breaks, rather than mid-week business travel.

After Covid, Tangerine predicts the rise of the conscious traveller; someone who is more discerning about the journeys they will go on, willing and able to be away from home for longer (thanks to remote working), more appreciative of their surroundings and local people, and more conscious of the environmental cost of travelling.

Growing flight shame due to aviation’s considerable contribution to global CO2 emissions, compared with rail’s comparatively low carbon footprint, presents a clear opportunity for rail to play a pivotal role in the sustainable growth of domestic and international travel worldwide in years to come. Recently French lawmakers have moved to ban short-haul internal flights where train alternatives exist, in a bid to reduce carbon emissions.

In China, Tangerine works with Chinese rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles Company and has recently designed a standard Sleeper EMU which will run on domestic high-speed services across the country, as a cheaper subsided travel alternative to domestic flying. The design boasts double-decker pods, designed for comfortable upright lounging and lie-flat sleeping for a comfortable overnight trip.

China director Weiwei He highlights that globally there are changing attitudes in certain areas: “Interestingly, there is growing demand for unique train experiences and sleeper services to support leisure travel. For CRRC Changchun, over the last three years we’ve designed trains with kids’ zones that have graphic animals decorating the carriage walls and intercity trains with seasonal liveries and interior elements shaped to reference the destinations they serve. We’re especially excited for people to see the very special high speed train that we’ve helped CRRC Changchun to design, taking athletes and visitors between Beijing and the slopes of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.”

Technology for a great onboard experience

Looking to the future, the utilisation of digital technology, smarter material choices and the development of flexible ticketing and passenger environments on trains will be pivotal in creating more resilient rail systems.

To drive resilience into rail to cope with future pandemics, AI, connectivity and video monitoring will play an important role to enforce desirable passenger behavioural adjustments. Social distancing on the platform or onboard trains, working in conjunction with intercoms, light signals and direct messaging to travel apps on passengers’ phones are some of the tools that will emerge.

Seamless journeys with flexible ticket booking, a choice of passenger provisions to suit individual needs, and touchless operation of facilities – from doors and barriers to ticketing, flip-down seat articulation and hand sanitation – will be a priority for every journey.

“The main barrier to innovation is cost, and operators are certainly cash-strapped right now,” observes Round. “But considering these ideas now for future rail services will help operators to avoid the devastating disruption that extreme situations such as pandemics can cause. Making people feel safer to return to rail and building resilience into passenger systems could be essential to turn a profit and avoid a cycle of government bail-outs that hampers innovation due to low investment.”

The rail industry has taken a battering over the last couple of years, but now is not the time to rest on our laurels and wait for passenger numbers to pick up after the pandemic. People’s attitudes, behaviours and values have been fundamentally changed by the pandemic and OEMs and operators need to think ahead to what changes need to be made to attract people back to rail, and what needs to happen long term to make rail the number one choice for commuting, business and leisure travel.

Find out more about Tangerine's transport design work here