What do we need from rail carriages of the future?

12th July 2019

UK train passengers are well overdue an upgrade; a staggering 1.7 billion rail journeys were made last year, but they were spent in carriages that are on average 21 years old – the oldest since records began. The majority of current trains date from the 1990’s – and rail use has doubled in that time. The stock isn’t just old, it was designed to meet now outdated needs. Services are frequently overcrowded and uncomfortable, and as passenger numbers continue to rise, problems will only intensify.

The on-going parliamentary inquiry into the ‘Trains of the Future’, isn’t just focusing on decarbonisation, but the design of carriages.  Lilian Greenwood MP, the Chair of the Transport Committee, said, “With the carriages commissioned now likely to be in service for the next four decades, it’s vital that the Government and industry looks ahead to cater for the needs of passengers of the future”.

So, what should be considered in carriage design?

Access for all

Full accessibility must be guaranteed – it’s not just a ‘nice to have’. Wheelchairs and pushchairs must be accommodated safely and comfortably in designated areas that allow space for turning and access to the same facilities as other passengers. Rail carriages should allow boarding little effort, and priority seating should be available.

Clever use of space

As overcrowding is such an issue, rail carriages must be designed to maximise on space, comfort and passenger capacity. Design studio Priestman Goode recently redesigned the humble train seat – increasing carriage capacity by 30%. Their innovative design is centred on the idea of a ‘semi-upright perch’, allowing rows of seats that are closer together. Users can still take weight off their feet and a clever staggering of seats provides more shoulder room.

Door positioning should be carefully considered to aid boarding and alighting during busy times. Clever design cues that guide people to the correct area of the carriage would reduce crowding in vestibules and improve the customer experience.

For standing passengers, padded backrests and USB socket would be welcomed. As people understandably want luggage nearby, storage should be incorporated within seating areas, where possible.

Adaptability is vital – allowing carriages to be used differently during peak times and for varying needs.


Newer electric trains create less noise and vibration – not to mention cleaner air. Thermal comfort is an important factor too; older UK trains are often sweltering in summer and cold in winter. Effective ventilation and heat management systems would allow comfortable journeys, whatever the weather.


People feel more anxious when there is ambiguity surrounding their journey. Real-time travel information should be displayed clearly on screens within carriages, along with information on carriage loading and WC availability.

For the benefit of those who’re visually impaired or haven’t noticed on-screen updates, timely announcements should be made.

Personal devices

In designing for modern passengers, personal technology – such as tablets and phones – must be considered. After all, one big driver for commuters using rail is the ability to use it while travelling – so charging sockets and tables are desirable. Wifi connectivity is a priority, especially if there’s limited 4G/5G coverage along the route.


To enjoy travelling, passengers must feel safe. The use of live CCTV would improve security, as well as customers perception of it. Carriages should be well-lit, and it must be quickly and easily understood how to contact train staff, should they need to.

In order to meet the needs of current and future passengers, train interiors must be designed with them in mind. Rail needs to be an attractive option if it is to tempt people away from other modes of transport.

In a world that continues to evolve, it’s vital to consider how passenger needs may differ throughout the lifetime of the carriages. And as the future is notoriously difficult to predict, designing for adaptability will have to do.

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