Right time to change track

Image of Tyler Brûlé

Tell me if you recognise these surroundings. The space is wide and long and could accommodate a Boeing 737 if the ceilings weren’t quite so low. The floors are dark wood (one of the better features in the space) and most of the standard-issue institutional furniture is designed so patrons cannot stretch out or lie down should the need arise (more on this in a moment).

For 7.12am the lighting is far too bright and ghoulish (when will the person responsible for those dreadful fluorescent coil bulbs be charged with crimes against health and beauty?). And at the far end of the room an anaconda-shaped queue weaves through bins full of milk cartons. At first you think that these people must be eagerly waiting to board some magical form of transport that will take them on some fantastic journey. But, on closer inspection, it’s an absurdly long line for a coffee shop that has to service thousands of people.

Next door there’s a branch of a well-known retail brand that has a confusing offering of cold beverages, the odd newspaper and loads of chocolate bars. As for inspiring, interesting and tasty things to purchase, the space is a wasteland – which is something of a surprise as the crowd is generally well-off at this time of day and everyone would happily stock up on better toiletries or more captivating magazines. And they’d pay for better coffee if it was on offer.

If you haven’t guessed where we are yet, the walls might offer another clue: they’re sandblasted red brick and are a hazy nod to the days when this particular city was the envy of the world and the home of dazzling transport and engineering feats. Now it’s a nation with a hobbled rail network (famous for crumbling under the weight of wet leaves, flashes of frost and all-too-frequent signal failures), where travellers sleep rough under polyester blankets when a few snowflakes put in an appearance and the PM ventures out in public in a Jaguar covered in snow because there are no small brushes or brooms at Number 10.

Still at a loss as to where we are at 7.23 on a Wednesday morning? OK, one last clue. Down the right side of the space there’s a lounge for customers who’ve been foolish enough to pay for a business-class ticket (I count myself among the hundreds of other dimwits crowded into the narrow corridor), but it’s cramped and so uncomfortable that I do a three-point turn and head back out to the public area. I’m about to sit down when there’s an announcement in the hall: my 7.55am Eurostar train from London to Paris is ready for boarding.

Over the past two years there has been plenty of huff ’n’ guff: “the Germans are coming” with their snub-nose Deutsche Bahn Siemens trains, and Eurostar has also signed up for similar rolling stock. There’s been a rebrand in the form of a new but oddly dated logo for the service, but nothing in the way of new seats on board or an improved passenger experience.

As I stride along the platform my jaw starts to tighten as I glance at the absolutely filthy exteriors of the carriages, the supermarket lighting inside. And I get the first whiff of the toxic fumes escaping from the toilets. On board there’s little evidence of any meaningful rebrand. Are the aubergine leather headrests new? The matching armrests? Why, in the second decade of the 21st century, is there no WiFi service on a train that’s squarely aimed at business people shuttling between Europe’s two biggest capitals? Why is the seat pitch so mean on a rail service that has some of the world’s tallest people (Flemish and Dutch) among its most frequent users? The Eurostar could – and should – be a high-speed example of European design, catering and technology at its best. However, it has become a good example of what happens when you have a monopoly and don’t have to put in much in the way of effort.

A couple of weeks ago I called for SBB (Switzerland’s rail network) to extend its reach, and it would do well to start running a rival service. More delightful for all would be the arrival of one of Japan’s JR franchises with their predatory- looking shinkansen bullet train network, complete with platypus-beak-style engines and a simple service offer – regular and “green car” (first class).

Instead of trying to compete with airlines and their mediocre food, the pitch should be a well-considered array of food vendors at stations, selling perfectly packaged meals for 150-minute journeys and a paid trolley service for all on board. Seats could be designed with people taller than 180cm in mind, and a generous recline would encourage napping rather than grating phone calls. Oh yes, and could someone also turn down the lights? Few of us are at our best under a fluorescent glare at 7.55am.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


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