A beginner’s guide to designing trains

S02E05: Adding style to substance

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).

Last episode, we looked at how you go about integrating all necessary functional and technical elements within your carriages, while still using the example of a business traveller, as in previous weeks. Thanks to that stage, we’re starting to get a better idea of what our might look like. However, no one would really want to spend 12 hours on-board a train that feels cold and boring. So that’s the subject of our final instalment: materials and colours.

This last stage is more than essential (though, true, we’ve been saying that about every stage so far). Last time, we made a lot of references to the fact that senses are all-important when it comes to the impression we want to give passengers: the way things look and feel (or even smell) is key.

In the particular case of night trains, there are all sorts of designs you could go for, depending on the market position of your company, from the old-fashioned cruise-style decor of the Venice-Simplon-Express to the SNCF sleepers, with their much sleeker look. The aesthetic side of things is therefore the first thing that comes to mind when we tackle this stage of the design. But as always, things are never that simple.

Although the operator will obviously be after a design that chimes with its brand image, its market position and its values, there are several other things to take into account when it comes to defining the final product. Here are few things to consider:

  • How long the design will last for
  • Maintenance of the design
  • Regulations and checks

As we mentioned before, a train, and particularly a new train, will last for several dozens of years. It’s clearly possible to modify their design over the lifetime of a train. That’s what Thalys has just done, but it goes with saying that a renovation is costly and means the trains can’t be in service while it is carried out. To avoid having to carry out frequent renovations, it’s therefore necessary to think long term when it comes to identifying a design which matches up with the brand image of the company and travellers’ expectations (and what those are likely to be in, say, ten years time).

Train designers must therefore always imagine what the world will look like ten years later, to make sure their carriages will still look and feel contemporary. They must always look for features that will feel timeless: at all costs, you must avoid a design that will go out of style fast. Travellers must also be able to recognise – consciously or otherwise – a universe, an atmosphere, a familiar style that feels like other places they often go to.

You’ve got to consider maintenance of materials and how practical they’ll be for those working on board the train. A train is a place where travellers will temporarily live, and also a place where its staff will work. Those two factors must both be taken into account.

Transparent materials will make the trains lighter and also make them feel more spacious; however, they would also be the worst enemy of those tasked with cleaning surfaces. Fabric materials can add warmth, but also tend to retain dust and break easily.

But not everything is possible on a train. Like we’ve explained previously, the industry is subject to various regulations and norms to ensure the safety of passengers. Materials like natural wood or even marble are forbidden. That also limits the number of material providers you could use.

Now we’ve established the various criteria you have to bear in mind, we can start thinking about integrating the materials and colours within the train. You’ll have to start by reproducing the entirety of the train in 3D, without materials and colours. This reproduction work (an example of which illustrates this final instalment) relies clearly on the various stages we’ve been through previously:

  • The layouts – the maps of each compartment on board
  • The composition of the trains – the number of each type of carriage
  • The functional elements (plugs, coat racks, baggage space, etc.)
  • The technical elements (opening doors, electrical cabling, water storage tanks, etc.)

The next step consists of making a moodboard, that is a document with assorted imagery that might inspire your design: they could be trains or basically anything else that suggests an atmosphere, a style, a universe. Starting with the moodboard, the designers and operator can identify what the images have in common and extrapolate, from that base, the materials and colours that should be incorporated into the train’s design.

Once the colours and materials have been chosen, that’s when the magic and talent of the designer enter into play. The success of the design won’t come down to simply pasting these colours and materials on the 3D reproduction of the train: you’ll have to test, iterate and change until you strike a subtle balance that’ll wow anyone who climbs aboard.

So there we have it: we’ve reached the end of this series and we’ve now designed an entire train. Or nearly! Because now you’ve got to find it and renovate it (in the case of secondhand material) or build it (in the case of new material), not to mention find funds to pay for it.

We hope this second series has helped you understand more about what goes on behind the scenes at Midnight Trains. And we’d like to wrap up by saying thanks to our partners who are accompanying us on our journey: Yellow Window for the industrial design, Railtarget for engineering and other technical matters, and Apex Rail for funding.

See you back here in 2022 for a third series!

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