Transit vehicle design: Comfortable, profitable

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Until recently, the goal of most public transit advocates, pushing suppliers and agencies alike, was to simply get vehicles, preferably (but not even always) with adequate seating capacity. Sure, some minimal creature comforts were considered essential for Amtrak and/or VIA Rail Canada intercity service, even in their darkest days. But for mislabeled “commuter” operations, be they regional rail, heavy rail, or (more recently) light rail, the style, design, and even comfort were often, at best, secondary considerations for almost everyone involved.

Those days are gone.

It’s no longer cost versus comfort; it’s cost and comfort combined, says Scott Sherin, vice president of marketing and strategic planning at Alstom. “You can’t have the tradeoff; you need to provide both comfort and cost” to market a successful transit vehicle, he says.

Marketing drives planning, production

Alstom is one of several suppliers pursuing the growing streetcar and light rail transit market in North America, convinced (skeptics notwithstanding) that the market can overcome “Buy America,” “Buy Canada,” or other obstacles. Though not dismissing those factors, Sherin sees a larger problem and, fortunately, a solution as well.

Perhaps counterintuitively, he says, at present “streetcars are more expensive than light rail vehicles. They’re shorter and lighter and should be lower-cost equipment. The reason they’re more expensive is lower volume. As the volumes increase and the market matures, those costs should come down.”

WEBDSC 0075Some assert that the drive to maximize rail vehicle safety across all modes counters any hope of lowering cost while increasing comfort. That’s nonsense, asserts Cesar Vergara (pictured, with Railway Age Managing Editor Douglas John Bowen aboard a Metro-North M8, which Vergara designed), principal of VergaraStudio. Safety, Vergara says, “should affect the comfort level; it should improve it.” Asked if that doesn’t automatically drive up the cost, Vergara bluntly answers, “No. Period.”

“It’s [involving] the exact same amount of metals, plastics, fabric, and other materials,” Vergara points out. “It’s the shapes, color combinations, lighting, and layout that make a train attractive, inside and out. Unattractive trains are the result of lack of interest from the top down. There are formulas that can be followed to find out what the people really like and how to get there.”

“The trains we are designing and procuring today will start service in two-to-five years and be out there longer than most people working in the industry. We have to think in terms of inventing a better future, not repeating the boring status quo,” the industrial designer insists.

Sherin agrees, pointing to Portland, Ore.’s embrace of both LRT and streetcars as the unavoidable North American model. “The attractiveness of the vehicle, a product for your passengers and citizens that’s attractive to look at, comfortable to ride—the industrial design is critical,” he says. The transit provider, and by extension the supplier, must “move beyond the functional to the aesthetic; without both, the product is not going to work.”

Market conditions bode well

With requirements from the Federal Railroad Administration and/or the Federal Transit Administration a constant factor, transit vehicle design still must deal with the idea, real or not, of “American exceptionalism.” But even here, industry players appear willing to adapt and adjust, perhaps because of the apparent shift in demographic trends in North America, some of which now appear to favor urban population growth after decades of urban flight.

Alstom’s Sherin suggests that the change now recognized by many fields, including rail suppliers, may simply be more visible. “In the past 30 years, an average of one new light rail service was put into place each year in the U.S. and Canada; it’s been a ‘silent’ development,” he observes. “The trend is now more plainly visible: Many cities have plans for an LRT or streetcar system, or both.”

Citing Kansas City and Ottawa as potential and actual examples, respectively, of marrying rail transit to economic development plans, Sherin says, “What Alstom has done with our Citadis vehicle is develop a vehicle that has the versatility to start as a streetcar, but be modified for future LRT additions.” Alstom has company and competition here; Siemens Mobility is offering modifications of its S70 LRT model for streetcar use in Atlanta and Salt Lake City.

Sherin says that for passenger rail equipment, and particularly U.S. high speed rail development, the Federal Railroad Administration has been “doing a good job” in trying to leverage global standards out there today; that allows suppliers to come into the U.S. market “while not trying to completely modify their vehicles, and that reduces cost.” But “it’s different for transit, especially with mixed operations issues” involving safety concerns where passenger (or freight) rail shares right-of-way with DMUs, LRT, or streetcars (Sherin cities NJ Transit’s RiverLINE as one example.) The Federal Transit Administration gets involved with these lines, but “you’re still under the jurisdiction of the FRA.”

Sherin believes the FRA “is starting to make a move to allow global-style” safety standards involving crash energy management, not just crashworthiness, and he is encouraged by the progress made for transit vehicles, “though I think there could be more.”

Competing with the car

Rail transit already posts a far better safety record than cars do, but historically, U.S. and Canadian travelers have been little swayed by such a fact. Like so many other products (Sherin points to cell phones and related items as a prime example), it may come down to design—the attractiveness of the product above and beyond its functional use.

Cesar Vergara paints rail transit’s primary competitor, the automobile, as an example of what can, and should, be offered in terms of design to rail transit riders.

“Automobiles are much safer and complex than they use to be in the past, but that does not stop the designers from making them more exciting, ergonomic, and comfortable,” he notes. “But what or who is stopping train designers from delivering a better train?”

Both Sherin and Vergara say transit need not yield the field when it comes to aesthetics and comfort, something good design makes possible, something suppliers are ready to offer at a competitive cost. It’s something rail operators can, and should, commit to for their current and future customers.

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