Meet the rail designers at the Railway Interiors Expo 2015

Last week… I popped over to Prague for a what was literally a twenty-four-hour flying visit.

I’m not going to wax lyrical about the capital of the Czech Republic, a city with a uniquely preserved historical centre that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List. No, I’m going to focus, as I always do, on the future of the global rail industry! So who better to meet up with than some of the people who are actually designing your future rail journeys.

Luis Chomiak

First up is Luis Chomiak, the kind man who introduced me to the rail industry, by giving me a twelve-month placement, at Interfleet Technology (soon to be SNC Lavalin) in 1999.

Luis has held many of the top design posts in Europe over the years. Including being Head of Industrial Design at Bombardier Transportation, Principal Industrial Design Engineer at Interfleet Technology as well as holding roles at British Rail and Pininfarina. He now runs his own Transport, Product and Brand Design company.

At Railway Interiors Expo 2015 he was speaking about his exterior design philosophy for the Bombardier Twindexx SBB. He spoke of a new focus of design inspiration for him, that of modern Swiss Architecture, which influenced the exterior of this new double-decker for SBB.

Michael Sohn, Head of Industrial Design, Bombardier Transportation

Whilst Luis covered the exterior design, Michael was speaking of the interior of the Bombardier Twindexx SBB. Michael started his talk with some frank remarks about the benefits of double-deckers which caught everyone’s attention.

Did you know, for example, that they only increase capacity by a factor of x 1.5, and that in an ideal world we wouldn’t have any double-deckers, just longer trains (and longer platforms to match).

Matt Such, Director, Mediasphere

They say that behind every great man is an even woman. Well, in that case, behind many great train designers is Matt Such. He’s the technophile who runs the company that creates the deceptively perfect photo-realistic images of the interior and exterior of many future train concepts.

At the show he took me to one side, to show off his latest product… Virtual Reality visualisations. Avid readers of this blog will remember that I’ve spoken about these before, noticeably the Oculus Rift, at the Mobile Convention London, where I was less than impressed.

Matt: “So, Will, I read your blog and you weren’t impressed. I want to change your perspective on virtual reality. What was it you didn’t like?”

WillB: “Hmm, well just seemed like a novelty fad and I didn’t see any point in it.”

Matt: “What visualisation did you see?”

WillB: “I think it was a rollercoaster, didn’t seem very real and gave me a headache.”

Matt: “Ahh, yes, that’s the default demo. What I want to show you is quite something else.”

So with my usual skeptical nature, I put on the headsets to appease my enthusiastic friend. To be fair, it took me a few seconds to really understand where I was, standing on the top level of a double-decker train. Once I understood that I used the intuitive retina scanning navigation control to make my way around the train. Wow, it was night and day, a really terrific tool for designers, architects and sales professionals to showcase their designs.

After a few more minutes Matt took me, virtually, of course, on board a private jet where I picked out my own leather interior and walnut finish. After flying around at 30,000ft he took me outside, to admire the exterior livery of concept train, and then with the flick of a switch, he had me in the driver’s compartment of a train.

Brilliant, Matt’s passion for his product has actually changed my perspective of what’s possible. If you want to try it out yourself contact myself, or Matt at Mediasphere.

Andy Sykes, Lead Rail Designer, SeymourPowell

How do I know Andy? Well… he took my job.

That’s the most dramatic way of looking at it, but in reality, after spending five years in the industrial design team at Interfleet Technology in Derby, I was willing to move on. This young upstart, a sprightly, optimistic designer is only a few years younger than me, and with a politician’s tongue, he has since gone on to what must be conventionally considered, as far greater heights than myself. Turning 30 next year, he’s currently the Lead Rail Designer at the world-renowned industrial design company, SeymourPowell.

At the conference Andy gave a speech about how Seymour Powell re-invented the refurbishment process, focusing on their client, Angel Trains’ numerous fleets of trains. Instead of the egotistical view that designers always know best (I would argue they do), his team travelled 4,850 miles by rail, on 97 journeys and interviewed 32 staff at home, whilst listening onsite to numerous others during 8 depot visits, to really understand how a refurbishment can improve the lives of both the travelling public and the maintenance crews.

The innovations they derived were tangible, increased luggage space between the seats (admittedly at a loss of seat numbers) and vast improvements in one particular bicycle racking area, that allowed staff to clean five trains per shift, rather than two. This, of course, will lead to cost savings, due to staff savings.

Beyond the innovations they unearthed was an even greater discovery. This was the birth of a star, that of Andy Sykes, as a spokesperson for design. His twenty-minute Obama-esque speech had us all captivated. Andy spoke eloquently, hitting the sweet spot of every syllable, to drive home the importance of customer-centric design.

I’m sold… especially if I don’t know what I’m buying!

James Alton, Section Head – Industrial Design, Interfleet Technology

So if Luis is a design icon, Michael the interiors expert, Matt the technophile and Andy the future star, where does this leave James Alton?

Well, he’s the one who does all the work obviously! Luis Chomiak may have given me my first job back in 1999, but it was with James I spent the following five years, being taught most of what he knew. He’s a stalwart of the rail industry, the person that Philippe Stark and Jony Ive’s former employees at Tangerine design have turned to when they want to turn their concepts into a genuine reality.

At the event, Railway Interiors Expo 2015, James spoke to a two-hundred strong crowd about the completion of a seven-year project delivering the new Saudi Arabia Railway. A railway like no other, where the train exterior had to withstand hitting camels at 250 kph (that’s the speed of the train, not the camel) and the interior needed to be as opulent as a Sultan’s palace. It sounds complicated, which is why James was ideal to manage the project.

Heading home

At the end of the show, I jumped into a taxi, waited for two hours at departures and then boarding my five-hundred mile EasyJet flight back to Stansted. At thirty-thousand feet, I dreamt of a day when we’d replace the environmentally disastrous airplane with ecologically sound high-speed trains run by low-cost operators.