• Abby

Rail Travel and Person-Centred System Design

Updated: Aug 2

I’ve been involved in the Campaign for Family Friendly Trains since autumn 2021. Our ask is simple; that trains are designed to accommodate people travelling with small children. Working on this campaign has opened my eyes to a near-perfect example of how not to design a system, and the paralysing inertia that many experience when challenged to change it.


At present, trains have spaces for bikes (as well they should) but not for children. Free travel for 0-5-year-olds comes at the cost of the expectation that they won’t need a seat – a rule created by someone who either has never lifted a 4-year-old or doesn’t value their knees. The need to fold a buggy in order to board a train is a rule invented by someone who has never tried to fold a buggy one-handed while simultaneously trying not to drop a nappy bag and – lest we forget – a baby. It’s not that it’s been poorly thought through, it’s simply not been thought through at all.


Our campaign group recently unveiled a scorecard rating each of the train operating companies’ family-friendliness. The results were dismal. Out of a possible score of 8, the highest ranking company scored just 3.5, and the highest scores came in London and the South East (shock horror), on operators running short-distance journeys.

Through the campaign I’ve met with people working in all different areas of the rail industry, from customer service teams in train operating companies, to people who design and manufacture the trains according to the specification set to them by a long chain of contractors, to civil servants at the top of that chain. My experience is that they really do want the rail industry to be fit for purpose for all of society. They see that we’re past the point of commuter-led rail. There are some really great people saying all the right things. And yet, very few are attempting to change the status quo. It’s too big a problem in too complex an industry. Everyone points the finger at somebody else who supposedly has the power, who in turn points the finger at someone else (or sometimes right back at them).


Notwithstanding the farcical nature of the current ‘provision’ for children, all this serves to highlight a few things: Firstly, that some of our oldest and most embedded services were designed by people according to their personal experience. My hunch, confirmed by several in the industry, is that a lot of design comes from a demographic that is statistically less likely to carry much of the childcare responsibility. Our biggest detractors on social media (and detractors are rare) represent that same demographic. It’s not surprising, too, that the overwhelming majority of people sharing their experiences of awful train journeys with their babies on Twitter are women, and the well documented disproportionately low numbers of women historically in STEM industries cannot be irrelevant. This is a very gendered issue. It’s a no-brainer to suggest that people who will use an aspect of a system – or the whole of it – should be involved in designing it. Welcome to both service design and system change 101.


Secondly, the longer this design goes unchallenged, the longer good people continue to simply service the system, rather than build something that’s fit for a world devoid of homogeneity. In so doing, they become an active part of the problem, by failing to wield their power.


Thirdly, it’s much easier to continue to service the system than it is to try and change it. It takes bold actions. It takes bravery and risk. The challenge for the industry is for somebody to make the first move, and really commit to showing what’s possible if you just try. If nobody is brave enough to step forward, we will forever be stuck in a cycle of bureaucratic inertia. And who will lose out? Babies, children and their parents. The planet, which accumulates more cars on the roads because parents give up on public transport. All of us, parents or not, who are forced into a system of generic design for a narrow sub-set of society, that will fail most of us when we don’t fit.


If I had a penny for every time I’d heard an able-bodied parent reflect that they’d never realised how hard it is to travel on trains in a wheelchair until they started to travel with a buggy I would be a darn sight richer. It shouldn’t take personal experience to open our eyes to deep societal issues but in reality it often does. There are huge commonalities between the problems faced by parents, pregnant women, people with many forms of disabilities and elderly people on trains. Ignoring for a moment that there is enormous crossover between those four groups, at present we’re pitted against one another, in competition for priority seats, priority boarding, passenger assistance and that valuable space reserved for wheelchairs but often occupied by desperate parents.


Designing a system around your own experience, or failing to act when you see how much it fails diverse and intersectional groups of people, to me, is a moral issue. Do we want to accept a world in which the young, able-bodied, unencumbered commuter is served to the detriment of all others?


The question is: Once your eyes have been open, are you going to look away? Or are you brave enough to act?



This piece is written in a personal capacity; any views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Campaign for Family Friendly Trains as an entity.

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