A beginners’ guide to designing trains

S02E04: what technology will we need?

We’ve been running a new series of articles that goes behind the scenes of Midnight Trains. After a first season dedicated to how you go about buying trains, Midnight Weekly, this time we are exploring how to design trains, in five main instalments (though no doubt we will return to the subject, since design will play such a huge part in our mission to reinvent the sleeper train).

In our last edition, we simulated demand for our services and used this to experiment with the layout and composition of our trains (and help find the optimal solution). This time, we’re moving onto the next stage: how to go about integrating all the functional and technical elements required on board.

In all our previous instalments, we’ve taken an approach centred on the traveller (the public), their expectations (services, habits) and budget (the price always having to match up to alternatives). This week, we’re going to go even further and imagine the practical needs of passengers on our trains, the potential points of friction, and attempt to offer some solutions too.

All aboard! So, once again, we’re working on a sleeper train with a luxury market position that’s targeting business travellers (at least, that’s the example we’re using in this article series). Let’s start from the top, on the platform, one summer’s evening.

Our business traveller must climb aboard the train, but the door is closed (of course, in reality, a luxury company probably would have ensured staff were waiting to welcome passengers on board, but this is just an example). Should the passenger open the door manually or press on an automatic button? We’re going to go for the automatic button, which is much more modern, safe and in line with the market position of the company.

The traveller has brought along one cabin bag (quite typical of a business traveller en route for just a few days) and an outfit in a suit bag. Considering a cabin bag is generally 40cm wide (except for Easyjet, where it’s 35cm, which we never understand), and there’s nothing more annoying than struggling to carry a bag along a train carriage, our corridor would need to be around 60cm wide.

They will then have to access their bedroom. They received the bedroom number when they reserved, but once again, the door is closed. So we’ll create a door-opening system using a QR code. It’s not her lucky day, and the system is out of battery. Fortunately, alongside the QR code is a numeric keypad. In the same email containing the bedroom number, we had included the code (and they had thought to note it down on a piece of paper).

Once in the bedroom, they sit down and start unpacking their bags. We’d made sure to instal a hook behind the door where they can put their suit bag, along with plenty of space for their cabin bag under the bed. Sat on their bed, they can’t remember when they’re expected in the conference room for the speech by their CEO, and they‘re out of battery on their phone too. So we’ve included a plug socket near the bed, as well as a simple USB slot, in case they’ve only brought the cable.

The telephone lights up at last, but there’s no 4G. That happens in trains. They’re still not able to find the email that includes the time for the meeting in the conference room. But this isn’t an issue: we’ve added antennae to the roof, ethernet cables, an ethernet switch, coaxial cables and two wifi access points in the corridor to ensure optimal connectivity. That should do it.

So they find out the meeting is at 8pm. It’s currently 7.15pm and so they decide to take a shower before the conference and dinner. Unused to taking showers in trains, they might have forgotten to take their own towel. So we’ve provided them with a towel rack (complete with clean towel, of course) in the shower room. We’ve also included two hooks in here, and because a shower without water isn’t a shower at all, we’ve installed a water tank beneath the carriage, along with a water-heating system. And we’re nearly there: all that remains is the management of dirty water. Clearly, it can’t be mixed with clean water, so we add another gank beneath the carriage to contain the greywater.

After they’re out of the shower, they get a bit hot in the bedroom (as you’ll remember, it’s summer). Given the price of the ticket and the market position of the company, we’ll have to have air conditioning on board. So there’s also an air-conditioning system with a button that allows the passenger to adjust the temperature to their needs.

They now have a quarter of an hour before they have to go to the conference room and they decided to send one last email before that. They sit on the bed, perch their computer on their knees and don’t exactly find that very... comfortable. So we’ve also included a backrest on the wall surrounding the bed and a folding table on which they can place her computer. They send their email, leave the bedroom and head off to the conference room.

Our business traveller has been on board for an hour now, and we’ve already been able to defined quite a few functional and technical elements we’ll need on board:

  • Carriage doors with automatic opening.
  • A 60cm-wide corridor.
  • Automatic keypad opening system for bedrooms.
  • A coat hook on the bedroom doors.
  • Storage space beneath beds for bags.
  • One plug socket and one USB socket in each room.
  • A Wifi system including antennae, cabling and access points in the carriage.
  • Clean and dirty water tanks beneath carriages.
  • Various functional elements in the bathrooms.
  • Air-conditioning systems with individual controls in bedrooms.
  • Backrests surrounding beds.
  • A folding table on each bed.

But that’s only one kind of travellers: we’ll also have to consider travellers with wheelchairs, ones who bring bikes on board and others who can’t do without their dog. We’ll have to take a heck of a lot more into account.

We think it is the duty of every operator to have thought of a maximum number of different people, to try to find solutions, to make compromises (though certain elements, like ensuring trains are accessible to those with reduced mobility, are a given) and to proceed with complete transparency from there on.

We’ve also been imagining our business traveller in an ideal world where everything goes well on board, but there could also be a breakdown during the journey or even a fire. Fortunately, as far as the latter is concerned, there are various, very precise safety norms imposed on companies and manufacturers. So we’ll have to take that all on board and integrate them scrupulously into our trains.

Now we reach the end of this fourth episode, we’re beginning to have a very clear idea of the elements that will make up our train. But no one wants to spend 12 hours on a train that’s uncomfortable and not nicely designed (even if very functional and with all necessary services on board). That will be the focus of our final episode next week: materials and colours.

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