Class 700 trains have been introduced onto the Thameslink services between Bedford and Brighton. The journeys passengers make on these services are not short; they can last for an hour or more, longer than some InterCity journeys. Whatever advantages and improvements that the new trains offer have been washed away by the trains seating, described by commuters as like sitting “on an ironing board. The issue has been reported by the “You and Yours” programme on Radio 4. One passenger commented to the programme that he’d had several operations to his spine and now avoids travelling by train between Brighton and London as the seats on the class 700’s are so uncomfortable.

Even the flagship class 800 trains, bought for InterCity services on the Great Western Main Line, have been slammed for the comfort of their seating. First Class passengers might wonder if it is worth paying extra. RAIL magazine has described the difference in quality between first class on a HST and a class 800 as “marked”, and a “reduction in quality”. There are rumours feedback has been so negative from passengers that GWR are considering replacing the seating on these trains which are barely out of the box.

So, why are seats on new trains not “comfybold on your botty”, as Professor Stanley Unwin might have said? The train operators say this is due to fire safety and crash regulations, together with ensuring seats are vandal-proof and they are entirely the specification of the DfT. The Department for Transport claim the seats on new trains have been consulted on via focus groups, and that passengers in these focus groups preferred the design. However, how big were these focus groups? Did they include the growing number of passengers with disabilities, including those suffering back problems?

There are suggestions though that the real reason why the comfort of these seats is so poor is nothing to do with regulations, or a focus group, but is down to the old chestnut – money. According to Nigel Harris, the editor of RAIL magazine, comfy seats that are fire compliant are available, but they cost £100 more. Commuters paying several thousand pounds per year to commute from Bedford or Brighton to London will be furious at this revelation, which seems to show there is a penny-pinching attitude amongst the Sir Humphreys in Marsham Street. If passengers endure the commute on these services and develop back problems as a result then they’ll be off work – costing their companies thousands of pounds a year in lost productivity.

The whole affair is revealing. It shows that the railways, despite being privatised, are subject to the same petty micro managing from Government that British Rail endured in the nationalised era, where new trains for commuter routes like the Cross City in Birmingham would only be approved if 3 + 2 seating, instead of 2 + 2 seating was specified. A new fleet of trains is on order for Cross City, and a number of other franchises serving the Midlands are due to have competitions soon including Cross Country and East Midlands Trains. No doubt the bidders for the new franchises may come up with proposals for new trains. If they continue to feature the same quality of seats offered in the current generation of new trains then any bounce from a new fleet will not happen. Likewise Campaign for Rail expects that the new trains promised in the West Midlands will be rather better appointed than those put into service over the last few years. There is still plenty of time to ensure that the new trains promised by the West Midlands Trains franchise have comfortable seating for passengers, not ironing boards.

Meanwhile the manufacturers of travel cushions, who’d seen their business decline as the railways upgraded their fleets, will be rubbing their hands with glee.

What do you think of the quality of seating on the trains used on your route?

Tell Campaign for Rail – E-Mail

There are five key requirements for rail passengers. Firstly, to be able to travel in safety. Secondly, to have a service that is reliable. Thirdly, to have a punctual service. Fourthly, cost. Fifthly but an important consideration, to travel in comfort.

The early days of railways saw passengers travelling on wooden benches. Now, in its specification of new trains, the Department of Transport seems to be taking the issue of comfort back to those times.

Being able to travel in comfort has often been sold by the marketeers as one of the advantages of travelling by rail. The likes of the Great Western Railway would herald the launch of improved carriages for their crack express trains like the Cornish Rivera Express and the Cheltenham Flyer. The modern railway too, in its advertising, has pushed the comfort of travelling by rail, most famously via the “Relax” campaign of British Rail’s InterCity sector.

After all, you can’t really play a game of chess, or kick off your shoes easily in the car, whilst negotiating a contraflow system in rush hour on the M5.

Comfort should have been one of rail’s competitive advantages. The seats specified in the new fleets of trains being introduced around the network though are not comfortable. They are a step backwards. Michael Holden, someone who should know a thing or two about railways being a senior executive for both BR and the privatised companies recently took a journey on the Great Northern in a class 387 unit. After just a short journey, he was glad to get off, describing the seats as “rock hard.

These rock-hard Class 387 seats greet air passengers travelling to/from Gatwick Airport on Gatwick Express.  For a premium fare, you can get an identical type of seat in First Class … but with an antimacassar!

Are You Sitting Comfortably ?

19 April 2018