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A Post-Pandemic Design for Rail Passenger Cars

The mindset must not be to cram as many people as possible into a rail car, but to entice as many people as possible out of their automobiles.
Magazine Illustration Depicting People Traveling in a First Class Train Car

The coronavirus has decimated public transportation because that method of transportation is, well, public. People are traveling in close proximity to other people, whose health they know nothing about. The private automobile offers its driver the safety of privacy, which I suspect many will continue to want after we are beyond the panic over the virus. In fact, the coronavirus has merely put new emphasis on one of public transportation’s greatest weaknesses: its seeming inability to offer its riders privacy. As standards of public dress and behavior have plunged, starting in the 1960s, people’s desire for privacy has grown. That should not surprise us.

But I think there is a way to offer privacy on inter-city and possibly even commuter trains. I came up with it in the early 1970s, when I was a staffer for transportation, among other things, for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio. At that time, Amtrak was purchasing Rohr turbotrains (Rohr also manufactured the first trains for the San Francisco Bay Area BART system). I shared my idea with Rohr, which was interested enough to do some drawings. Sadly, Amtrak did not show any interest. But all these years later, the coronavirus might change that.

 The concept is a simple one. At that time, many European railways had compartment cars. An aisle ran down one side of the car, and doors to six-person compartments opened from the aisle. With ten or eleven compartments, such a car could carry 60 to 66 people, easily enough for inter-city rail. 

These compartment cars, some of which are still to be found in Europe, offered a certain amount of privacy. Not too many years ago I found myself taking a train from Le Havre to Paris. The French still had compartment cars at that time, and I settled comfortably in a First Class compartment. At the far end, I could just barely hear a screaming infant. Had that been the typical American open-interior car, that squalling infant would probably have afforded me and everyone else in that car a mostly uncomfortable journey. Thanks to the compartment arrangement, we traveled in a calming silence, wrapped, in my case, in pipe smoke. At least in France, a bit of civilization still survived. 

But that does not offer complete privacy. My interior plan would accomplish just that. Instead of a side aisle, the car would have an off-set center aisle, with compartments for two on one side and four on the other. This design, which would again seat 60 to 66 people, would be coupled with a fare structure where one fare got a single traveler a two-person compartment to himself. Two people traveling together would pay two fares for a two-person compartment. Three people travelling together would pay three fares and have a four-person compartment, as would a party of four paying four fares. Five or six people in a group could buy two compartments directly across the aisle from each other.

Amtrak and other potential operators would complain that they would not maximize revenue because some seats would normally be unfilled. That is the case in most trains anyway. It also reflects an unfortunate mindset where the goal is to cram as many people as possible into a car, rather than to entice as many people as possible out of their automobiles and onto public transportation. Because the car offers privacy, in order to compete the trains must do the same.

Because of the fact that some seats will almost always be empty, my proposal would probably best start as First or Business Class. There, the extra fare could more than make up the revenue decrease from running with some seats empty, compared to coach. Should the concept prove popular and successful in bringing new riders, it could be extended to coach at some point. And while I have aimed it at inter-city rail, it might also work for some commuter rail, again as First Class accommodation.

If public transportation is again, post-COVID, to attract meaningful numbers of riders from choice, it must make changes that give people who have cars and can drive what they want. Trains must offer more of what people want than cars do, of which privacy may be the most important. Otherwise, our cities will suffer, either because of the return of large numbers of cars or because such people will move their jobs out of the city. Is anyone willing to try something different?

William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. He is an enthusiast for trains and a public transportation scholar. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.