The Wiki Man

Have the people who design trains and airports noticed that laptops exist?

The public provision of tables is so bad that Starbucks now earns $15 ­billion a year renting out horizontal surfaces

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

It’s taken years to work this out, but there is a subtle art to designing an airport lounge. 1) Install power sockets and add useful tables and comfortable chairs… 2) make sure these three items are never located in the same place. You can sit comfortably, use a laptop or even charge it — but do not attempt more than one of these at the same time. In this way, almost all the gains made in information technology are being eroded by the uselessness of furniture designers and the mean-spiritedness of the people who design public spaces.

When I first installed a computer at home, I had something called ISDN which was only available from a socket in my second bedroom, so I set up a properly ergonomic desk and chair in the room, added a large screen, a proper keyboard and a mouse, and saw that it was good. Then WiFi came along and, finding that I could no longer be bothered to sit in the bedroom, I switched to using a laptop downstairs. This was generally smaller than the desktop and needed to be precariously balanced on the arm of a chair. Then, when I couldn’t be bothered to sit up straight any more, I bought a tablet. Tablets are basically a crappier version of the laptop without a proper keyboard, but you can use it on a sofa while adopting the position of the 12th man in an Edwardian cricket photograph — progress of a kind, I suppose.

Now my children find tablets too exerting, since they require two hands, so they interact with the world’s greatest ever repository of knowledge using pathetic little phones. Finally, since actually holding something in your hand is clearly too much effort, the latest development in portable tech is a bloody watch. Now, let’s be frank here, short of creating the i-butt plug or the i-gourd, it would be pretty hard to conceive of a worse wearable device with which to consume or process information than something the size of a postage stamp, but technologists love to make things smaller on the ‘Why do dogs lick their own balls?’ principle. Because they can.

Of all these, the laptop, I think, is the best compromise. But it is rendered largely useless because nobody who designs furniture or public spaces seems to be aware of its existence (the public provision of tables is so bad that Starbucks now earns $15 billion a year renting out horizontal surfaces under the pretence of selling coffee).

The worst offenders are the train companies. I recently checked the design for the new Thameslink trains. I wasn’t optimistic. One of the problems with trains in Britain is that they are built by Germans and Japanese, cultures which have mastered only two aesthetic modes: ruthless minimalism and revolting kitsch.

Since Network Rail have apparently rejected the ‘Hello Kitty’ format, the lace-curtains-embroidered-with-hearts approach and the doe-eyed-schoolgirl-being-fondled-by-a-squid theme, we’re left with train interiors which look like they were designed by Albert Speer on an off day. Not only will these new trains have no tables in second class, but there’s no WiFi, few power sockets and not even any folding laptop tables on the back of the spartan aircraft-style seats. The £1.6 billion budget doesn’t stretch to cup-holders either, so you’ll have to put your drink on the floor, where it will be kicked over by a Croydon accountant.

The only good reason for trains is not to get you to a meeting faster — trust me, the meeting is probably a waste of time anyway — it’s that you might actually get some work done while you get there. Britain doesn’t need HS2. It needs the LTT: the revolutionary Large Table Train.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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Show comments
  • Dave M

    Could this be a clever form of market segmentation? Intentionally omit tables, power, WiFi etc. from second class, so that those with the ability to pay – business travellers with expense accounts – can justify first class as the only productive working environment? Heathrow Express seems to take this approach, branding their first class – the only place with usable tables -as ‘Business First’.

    But no, I’m sure it’s just incompetence. Trains designed by folk who never have to work on one.

    • TJP

      Yes I believe far more atrocities are caused by incompetence rather than malevolence. I used to believe in some conspiracies, though now it looks to me more of a case of idiocy by ideology.

    • rorysutherland

      The French Economist Dupuit proposed something similar in the 19th Century:

      ‘It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriage or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches… What the company is trying to do is prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from travelling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich… And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to the third-class passengers and mean to the second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class customers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.’

  • Alexsandr

    great western inter city trains have electric plugs and free wifi.
    I think this stuff is needed on inter city trains but not on commuter trains.
    and network rail dont design or specify trains. The train operating companies specify trains to DFT requirements in their franchises. And I think the uncomfortable seats is a bigger issue than wifi and sockets..

    • Alexsandr

      no wifi on german RE or berlin s-bahn trains. tho the RE trains have electric sockets.
      there is wifi on ICE trains and many stations if you can work out how to register.

      • rorysutherland

        I seem to remember it was almost impossible to register if you weren’t a German resident, but I may be out of date here…..

        • Alexsandr

          the registration with telekom was all in german so I gave up.

          • rorysutherland

            On the bullet train, there was an English language registration page, but no way to pay unless you had a Japanese bank account.

            The real point here is that technology sometimes changes what’s important about things. Trains now have a significant new advantage over driving: it is no longer speed (for many journeys within England, there isn’t all that much to choose between car and train for end-to-end journey time) but the fact that time spent on the train can be perfectly pleasant and useful. The railway companies have mostly failed to exploit this: the Eurostar will only get wifi in 2016.

    • davidshort10

      Of course they are needed on commuter trains.

  • MR

    The Swiss have actually managed to design trains with plenty of power sockets, tables and comfortable chairs in their trains, all in the second class.
    So being a country with a history of minimalist design doesn’t seem to be the problem.