The commute: driving Europe mad

Ever tried commuting by road from the banlieues of Paris to the inner city? Good luck with that. Picture the scene: gridlocked roads, the ever-reddening faces of irate drivers and passengers, the poor soul whose aircon has packed up and whose coffee has taken a nosedive into their lap. According to the Inrix Global Traffic Index, Parisians spend an average of 65 hours a year stuck in traffic. That’s a lot of time spent staring at exhaust pipes and wishing that the radio wasn’t so inane.

And that’s not the only downside of commuting by road. The emissions generated by idling engines are a major contributor to global warming. As the global interest in the latest carbon neutral voyage over the Atlantic proves, this is no longer a fringe issue. Commuters increasingly care about reducing the carbon footprint of their trip to work.

Surely this would be enough to make anyone wish for a different transport method? Maybe, but wishing for change won’t help anything – finding a suitable substitute will. Sadly, across many European locations, the alternative option of rail travel isn’t necessarily that attractive either.

Surely this would be enough to make anyone wish for a different transport method? Maybe, but wishing for change won’t help anything – finding a suitable substitute will. Sadly, across many European locations, the alternative option of rail travel isn’t necessarily that attractive either.

Ageing carriages with old, worn seating are not likely to lure those commuters away from their cars. Culture is a fickle thing – commuting by rail used to be a status symbol. When train carriages looked like hotel suites, people wanted to be in them. Somewhere along the way, in the search for cost efficiency and space, that aspect was lost and train interiors became functional rather than pleasing. Now it’s cars that carry the status. But that can change.

A renewed focus on traveller experience in trains may require a small investment in the short term, but the medium-term benefits of greater passenger numbers and increased revenues should make this a key consideration for rail operators. By working with contractors and OEMs to build trains that will inspire a new generation of European commuters, carriers can recapture the golden age of rail, brighten their customers’ days and help reduce the impact of climate change.

Customer-centric design

The key question for train companies is how to match functional needs like cost and durability with the need to improve passenger conditions. Traditionally ‘luxurious’ materials like wood and standard leather come with hefty price tags and don’t age well – your first few thousand customers will have a great experience, but over time these materials wear out. A modern equivalent is required – a way to make customers feel special without risking durability and cost efficiency.

Fortunately, new manufacturing technologies are emerging that can help bridge the gap. By engineering organic materials to last longer while retaining their tactile and aesthetic qualities, train makers can satisfy customer and accountant alike.

Modern materials such as engineered leather provide the natural look and feel of more expensive, fragile materials but last far longer without showing signs of wear – ensuring that the rail commute stays every bit as pleasant as the car. The use of reclaimed and engineered materials also has a positive impact on the environment, reducing waste and the impact of new acquisition on natural resources.

It’s also important for train interiors to reflect the branding of the carrier. Brand loyalty is an increasingly powerful tool across industries as consumers come to identify with the image projected by their chosen providers. Engineered leather can be coloured to match the carrier’s brand, creating a more unified experience for customers and subtly connecting the quality of the experience with the company itself.

New regulations

Train operators and manufacturers also need to be aware of the impact of upcoming EU regulations. These are aimed at opening up competition across borders by allowing operators and manufacturers to operate across borders, creating a more integrated European railway. This will radically change the market in EU countries, as previously secure monopolies are challenged and competition becomes more fierce. Manufacturers will need to ensure they can stand out in a far more crowded field – which means that customer experience is going to be more important than ever.

The use of superior materials in interior design will be an essential component of a successful strategy for succeeding in this competitive environment. Cost alone will no longer be enough of a differentiator – companies need to be able to offer a premium experience to go with it. Modern technology is helping to make those two opposing goals work together. Materials are changing – it’s now possible to provide a constantly excellent train environment without having to then charge first-class fares for the whole carriage.

Can the train save the road commuter? It can, but manufacturers and operators must be prepared to look for innovative solutions rather than sticking to the old standards.

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