Interior design is not limited to opulent modern housing projects; it plays an important role when designing new rail carriages or refurbishing old ones. Good interior design walks the line between form and function and can make the difference between a stress-inducing sardine can and a quiet haven for travellers.

As passenger numbers continue to increase on rail lines around the world, an increasing amount of thought is being given to maximising the aesthetics and functionality of rail interiors.

Flexible rail design

For some, the lavish splendour of the Orient Express, at its luxurious height during the 1930s, represents the pinnacle of interior design for trains. But the requirements (and number) of rail passengers has shifted irrevocably since the steam age. Today, the priority of rail carriage designers is to marry clean, spacious design with the flexibility to accommodate the bikes, buggies and baggage that are an established part of daily rail journeys.

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Flexibility is certainly the key word for Alstom with its design for the interior of the new high-speed train AGV (which recently reached 300kph on a trial run on the Rome-Naples high-speed line). The AGV’s interior is designed to provide a high-capacity space that is fully customisable, so that the client can choose the features to focus on based on their requirements.

“As seats and fittings can be fitted at any location on the train, operators are free to get creative with layouts.”

As seats and fittings can be fitted at any location on the train, operators are free to get creative with layouts. It’s possible to mix standard seating with family areas (complete with baby seats) or partitioned meeting rooms for business people who need an office space wherever they are.

Italian high-speed rail operator NTV, the first company to order Alstom’s AGV, decided to consult renowned industrial designer Giorgetto Giugiaro for its interiors. This is the man who, in 1983, designed a brand new pasta shape (the Marille, which looks like an ocean wave), so we should expect nothing less than ergonomic elegance throughout.

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Rubber and silicone pave the way

Choosing base materials is one of the most fundamental aspects of designing rail interiors. Material sets the tone for the look and feel of a carriage. For flooring, carpet and wood might have a sense of romance about them, but they are arguably outdated and unable to provide the durability that modern rail operators require.

Rubber might not be the most glamorous material but its resilience makes it a mainstay for many modern rail interiors. Its non-porous surface makes for easy cleaning, dispelling the maintenance nightmare of carpets soaked with soft drinks and clotted with old chewing gum. As flooring must conform to increasingly stringent flame, smoke and toxicity (FST) standards, it also makes a good choice due to its fire resistance. Other benefits of rubber flooring include slip resistance, good sound absorption and its green credentials (the material can be recycled). German rubber flooring specialist Nora Systems even points to rubber’s anti-static properties, eliminating pesky static shocks for passengers.

Floating floors are sparking the interest of rail operators aiming to provide passengers with the quietest possible journey. By placing anti-vibration pads underneath a rail carriage’s flooring substrate, floating floors minimise structural and airborne noise, as well as motion vibration. The real debate is what material to use for the subsurface pads. While open-cell foams such as polyurethane and neoprene provide adequate noise absorption, they have seen limited uptake due to significant flaws in FST conformity, heat resistance and long-term durability.

Recently, silicone foam has been championed as the solution to these issues. Silicone foam pads have the durability to last the whole life of a vehicle, as well as conforming to FST and extreme temperature requirements.

Airline luxury for railway seating

Railway seating has been traditionally dominated by moquette or hard plastic, but a trend for leather seating on new trains is now growing. Perrone Aerospace, a leading leather manufacturer for the airline industry, has established Perrone Railway to provide leather for railway seating. The advantages of leather in terms of style and comfort are obvious, and Perrone is applying its expertise to drive down weight and costs for clients.

“Rubber might not be the most glamorous material, but its resilience makes it a mainstay for many modern rail interiors.”

Perrone’s Featherweight leather line is claimed to be 30% lighter than standard leather, with no appreciable difference in look and feel to standard leather. The company is also reducing costs with a laser-guided water-jet cutting process, which dramatically reduces waste when cutting leather hides (normal cutting often wastes up to 50% of a hide).

The company has already been commissioned by railway seat manufacturer Grupo Antolin Transport, and Perrone leather upholstery has been used for seats on Alstom’s Pendolino high-speed train, which is due to run between Helsinki and St Petersburg.

Interior lighting: the rise of LED

In rail interiors, as in many other industries, LED technology is beginning to replace halogen and fluorescent lamps for its light quality and low energy output. As LED development has continued, problems with illumination have been overcome, and today LED lamps are used for even the most safety-critical, high-performance applications, such as runway lighting.

Now that performance issues have been mastered and LED lamps can produce a wide spectrum of white light, the benefits of this technology are undeniable. From an economic perspective, rail operators can profit from direct (longer life-span; lower energy consumption) and indirect savings (lower air-conditioning costs due to the lamps’ cooler running temperatures).

The absence of heavy metals in LED lamps also makes them more environmentally friendly, and there are benefits, too, in terms of energy savings and lower CO2 emissions. The LED trend certainly looks set to continue both in new designs and in refurbishment / upgrade projects. UK-based lighting manufacturer LPA has designed the LumiStrip, which can be used to retrofit LED technology into existing fluorescent lamps.

Closing the gap with inflight entertainment

Given that many rail journeys rival flights in terms of journey length, it is perhaps surprising that the airline industry has advanced onboard entertainment so far beyond that of the rail industry. If rail operators are going to entice passengers away from flights and on to their carriages for domestic journeys, they must make improvements in this area.

“In rail interiors, LED technology is beginning to replace halogen and fluorescent lamps for its light quality and low energy output.”

Fortunately, recent innovation looks set to make train companies’ entertainment goals a little more achievable. Last year at the University of York, in the UK, researchers made a breakthrough in the provision of high-speed internet for fast-moving trains. The development of reliable high-speed internet on trains has been hindered by the fact that the satellite dishes necessary to receive and transmit data are often too large to fit in railway tunnels when attached to the exterior of trains.

The York researchers have developed a dome-shaped device only half the size of a regular satellite dish that can track multiple satellites at once, which increases reliability and opens the possibility of being able to receive different signals (for example, broadband TV and regular internet services) from different satellites.

If operators are willing to invest the money to integrate this technology into their trains, it could have a huge impact on the quality of onboard entertainment. The research team, led by research fellow John Thornton, has been looking for commercial partners to take the project forward.

Many passengers might hanker after a return to the warm style of classic 1930s rail interiors, but operators are juggling a host of considerations when designing rail carriage interiors. The inside of today’s (and tomorrow’s) trains must be pleasing to look at. But they must also be comfortable to sit in, easy to move through and resilient against the never-ending stomp of our feet. If manufacturers and designers can get these elements right, a train truly can be more than the ride from A to B.