Seeing double: is the UK ready to embrace double-decker trains?

13 February 2018 (Last Updated February 5th, 2020 13:17)

While long a mainstay in parts of Europe, double-decker trains have remained absent from British railways. But that could be about to change with the design of the AeroLiner3000, a new model of two-tiered rolling stock. Creator Andreas Vogler reveals how this new train has caught the eye of the UK Department for Transport.

Seeing double: is the UK ready to embrace double-decker trains?
Double-decker train could also make commuting a much more pleasurable experience. Credit: Andreas Vogler

For the millions of Brits who venture over to mainland Europe each year, the sight of a double-decker train on certain parts of the continent is a novelty – almost akin to Parisian cafes, Amsterdam’s bicycles or the gondolas of Venice.

Well, for rail enthusiasts, at least.

The possibility of adopting such rolling stock on UK rail tracks has, however, always been precluded. A lack of infrastructural space – principally down to different gauges and low tunnels – has been reason alone to quash the idea of double-decker trains.

But with the UK facing a capacity crisis as a result of the growing population – set to hit ten million in London alone by 2030, according to the Office for National Statistics – the idea of British two-tiered trains may not seem so far-fetched after all.

In fact, Andreas Vogler Studio, a Munich-based architecture and design firm, has come up with a new double-decker solution that has piqued the interest of both the UK Department for Transport (DfT) and state-owned Network Rail.

Designed in direct response to the Future Railway Programme competition launched by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) in 2014, AeroLiner3000 is a double-decker train built for the UK and fully compatible with its existing infrastructure. According to founder Andreas Vogler, the model is based on his previous experience of designing light aircraft.

The ultimate goal of the AeroLiner3000 is to help Britain shuttle more and more people along its rails – reducing carbon-heavy reliance on cars in the process – but with fewer trains on the tracks. Double-decker train could also make commuting a much more pleasurable experience, says Vogler, but they won’t come cheap, as he explains to Ross Davies.

Ross Davies: So take us back to the beginning – how did you get involved in the RSSB’s Future Railway Programme?

Andreas Vogler: The competition was actually pretty free-form – we were invited to invent anything, as long as it didn’t touch the existing rail infrastructure. So we did some research to look at what were the main problems on the British railways.

We detected a capacity crisis, which, ironically, shows how successful the UK industry has been in developing over the last 20 years or so, continuously growing. And from our continental perspective, we started wondering why they don’t have double-deckers. We realised it was all about the gauge and tunnels, and the problem of extending them. It’s not just down to rebuilding logistics; there’s also national heritage at stake. The likes of Brunel obviously had a massive influence on the UK’s rail infrastructure that’s still evident today.

Then we looked back at our own background at the studio. We have previously designed aircraft, working in small spaces, so we began wondering what we could do with a double-decker that fits a similar profile – with a top deck, similar to a Learjet, in which you can’t stand fully upright but can sit in a comfortable space. So that was the starting point for us, before we began looking at it on a deeper level.

RD: How long did it take to come up with design?

AV: The first phase of the competition was taken up by a feasibility study. That took about nine months, in which we also did concept design and some preliminary mock-ups for testing. And then the second phase was the demonstrator, which took around 18 months, where we intensively worked on the engineering side of things.

Then we built a full-scale mock-up of half a coach. A lot of study went into it.

RD: As you mention, double-deckers are commonplace on the continent. Does it surprise Europeans that we don’t have them over in the UK?

AV: It does surprise people, I think, yes. But when you delve deeper into the problems with the gauge, you start to understand why. I mean, Britain invented the train and after that there were private companies coming in with different gauges.

I know it might sound strange, but I think the two world wars almost worked in our favour. Those events produced the need to transport the likes of military tanks by rail in Europe; that’s probably why most gauges of the main lines are big enough to carry double-deckers.

RD: Aside from space, what are the other benefits of the AeroLiner3000 – how could it improve energy and cost efficiency on British tracks?

AV: Well, it all kind of overlaps each other. If you can fit more people on a train, then you use less energy per person to transport. The other thing is to do with creating coaches that are as long as possible, with a very lightweight construction of the body. In saving weight we can put more people on the train – roughly 30% more passengers – but with fewer trains on the line.

We have also been looking with our engineers into incorporating a single-wheel drive, which allows the AeroLiner3000 to have much less abrasion on the tracks, while lowering maintenance costs.

All these things play together. Initially, the costs for trains like this will be higher, but over the lifetime, maintenance costs – and that goes for infrastructure, too – should be considerably less.

RD: How much of a consideration was lowering carbon emissions in the design of the model?

AV: It was a big consideration. One of the lead objectives of the competition was the ‘4Cs’ – carbon, cost, capacity and customer comfort. We approached carbon reductions by lowering the weight of the train, meaning you have less acceleration weight and weight per passenger. Basically, the lower the weight, the less the energy used.

RD: And comfort?

AV: Again, massively important – it’s a factor we’ve looked at from the beginning. Sometimes trains just aren’t very nice for passengers because they feel so cramped, or are designed in a way to be low-maintenance. We believe we can design trains to look better with the same maintenance costs.

Actually, the thinking behind it has always been: can we design a train that feels like a business jet? Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve had the Learjet in mind – spaces in which you can’t stand up but have a nice interior. We’ve attempted to do that using standard train materials. How the passenger actually feels is really important to us. You can’t make a smaller train without making it nicer than a normal space – otherwise people will feel like they are cramped.

RD: Rush-hour trains in cities are often an unpleasant experience and can negatively affect commuters’ moods. Do you think better comfort on-board trains could be linked to better productivity in the workplace?

AV: Definitely. The operators might save some money with their current trains, but on a national level, as you say, we are seeing people getting upset and wasting time, which can lead to a loss in productivity.

It’s quite hard to put into numbers, but it’s true. I think train operators that make their trains more comfortable should get tax incentives.

RD: Are discussions ongoing with the DfT? Are they still on-going?

AV: The DfT have shown some interest, as you allude to. We’ve provided them with some quite detailed information, but they haven’t made any decisions yet. They’ve made no official statement. Network Rail has also been in touch, but I can’t say anymore at this present time.

RD: Do you have a timeframe in mind for this project? When, conceivably, could we see the AeroLiner3000 see commercialisation?

AV: It’s dependent on many things. If we received more funding and support that’d certainly move things along. But, in answer to your question, I think this train could realistically be on the tracks within the next six to seven years.