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CX and Train Car Design

Previously I wrote about User Experience (UX) testing of new transit products, and how involving transit riders in the design process can create improvements to the customer experience. Today's blog post will take you on a journey into one project in particular, namely BART's new train cars, called the "Fleet of the Future." I will describe how the UX process worked, the value of involving customers, and lessons learned.



The Fleet of the Future design and UX testing process lasted nine years and engaged over 40,000 riders with mockups, prototypes, and other outreach. It was a considerable opportunity to remake the BART customer experience and engage the next generation of BART riders in designing the trains they would ride in the future. The process was exhilarating but also exhausting. It was a labor of love and a source of pride for me and for the hundreds of BART employees and contractors who participated in the process.



Before I tell you about the Fleet of the Future design journey, let's start with some basic information about the project. In 2023 BART retired its old trains, most of which had been serving the public since BART opened in 1972. Succession planning for this retirement started back in 2009. At that time, I led customer research as part of my job as BART's Chief Marketing Officer, and I was asked to lead the design of all customer-facing elements of the new cars and give riders a voice in the design process.


Jumping to the end of this story, while no one can claim perfection, the customer-driven design delivered exceptional results. Riders literally cheered the arrival of the new trains as they approached. Moreover, the new trains, which were built by Bombardier Transportation (now Alstom), earned double digit increases in customer ratings across every aspect we measured through customer surveys.



Now that I've spoiled the ending, let's back up to the initial UX design and outreach at the onset of the Fleet of the Future project, and I'll walk you through what we learned and give examples on how we incorporated customer feedback into the design process.


Initial design and outreach

Early in the project, we asked customers to email us ideas about the new fleet, what they liked or disliked about the old fleet and what features they would like to see. We also commissioned ethnographic research - observing rider behavior and body language - to gain insights into the riding experience. One thing we learned is that while people traveling together like seat configurations that facilitate social interaction, "solo" riders wanted more personal space, as shown by the subtle lean shown in this photo:


shows four rows of two-person bench seats on an old train, and riders lean away from each other on the bench seats

This led us to think about having multiple seating configurations, some designed for solo riders and others designed for riders traveling together. It also led us away from the two-person bench seating on the old trains to seating that created more personal space for solo riders.


More broadly, customer feedback led us to recognize that diverse riders have diverse needs, so we wanted the new train cars to give customers a choice of multiple types of experiences when they ride.


We also realized that having sufficient seats was important to BART riders due to crowded conditions on the train at that time. This was a design challenge because available space for seating was limited by new buffer zones at the ends of each new car for crash safety. Space for seating was also limited by the space required for a new third door on each car. The purpose of the extra doors was to make it faster and easier to get on and off the train. Space for the buffer zones and extra doors meant less space for seats. As a result, we knew we would have to develop streamlined seat concepts that required a smaller footprint while maintaining comfort.


shows a pair of seats. the design has very thin backs and short bottoms
Design concept for Fleet of the Future seats

Other early feedback from riders included wanting trains to be cooler on hot, summer days, and wanting more handholds in the doorway areas to hold on to as trains accelerate and decelerate. Ultimately, this feedback led to design of cooling systems to distribute air directly to the ceiling areas, making it more comfortable for standees on hot days, and new, floor-to-ceiling stanchions in many of the doorway areas.


By popular demand, we also elected to continue using non-carpet floors. BART had removed carpeting from the old cars due to their musty smell and difficulty keeping them clean.


In addition, the new train design includes more digital cameras to help deter crime and to help riders feel safe.


We logged customer feedback and asked train car design professionals to develop multiple interior design concepts responsive to the feedback. We also held community meetings to ask riders for input and to confirm we were on track.


Community meeting early in the design process. BART Director conversing with meeting attendee, with poster boards in the background showing various design concepts
Community meeting

Seat labs

In addition, we held "seat labs" to ask for feedback on seat dimensions and materials. We had our engineers cut seats to various widths, mount them at various heights, and vary the leg room. We also borrowed transit seats from Washington DC, Los Angeles, and Boston and asked customers to sit in them and give us feedback. The seats ranged from very plush seats to un-cushioned plastic bucket seats.


shows people sitting in various types of seats and surveyors asking them questions
Customers testing out seats at a BART Seat Lab event

Customer feedback at the seat labs enabled us to finalize seat dimensions and freeze the following dimensions for the remainder of the design process:

Width - 20 inches

Height - 18 inches

Legroom - at least 27 inches


These final dimensions received strong support in the seat lab tests, as shown in this chart:


The 20 inch seat width was 2 inches narrower than the old train cars, which had the widest seats in the country, but 90% of customers said the new seats offered enough room. The saving of a few inches on each seat width helped us maximize the number of seats and widen aisles between rows of seats, making it easier to move down the aisle for both wheelchair users and other riders.


The 18 inch seat height was about 1.5 inches higher than the old train cars. The higher seats make it easier for seniors and others to stand up from a seated position. It also provides room underneath for standard carry-on luggage.


The 27 inch leg room, which was the largest of the leg room dimensions we tested, established a limit as we sought to tighten the spacing of seats to allow more seats to fit in each car.


In addition to feedback on seat dimensions, riders told us about their concerns with seat cleanliness. BART had replaced seat covers on the old train cars with a non-porous, wipeable seat material that is easier to keep clean, and customers told us they wanted similar materials on the new cars so that's what we did!


Customers also voiced a desire for seats to hold their shape longer, and for seats to provide lumbar support. We also wanted the seats to be lightweight, and also modular to allow train car seating to be reconfigured as needed in the future to meet customer needs as they evolve.


In the end, we were able to deliver all of these things. The new seats use silicone cushions that hold their shape longer and provide lumbar support. And they are almost 50% lighter than the old seats, which will save energy over the life of the vehicle. Finally, the seating is modular, which one of our engineers was passionate about. The seats plug into rails that run the length of the train car walls.


shows the interior of the Fleet of the Future - doors, seats, handholds, floors, and lighting
Fleet of the Future Interior

Later in the design process, we were able to further refine seat design by testing out prototype seats with over 2,500 customers, varying seat bottom cushions to see what was needed to provide comfort. The seats with a medium density seat bottom foam won out over high- and low-density options.


shows customers seated in the seats and filling out a survey
Customers testing prototype seats

Doors

During our UX outreach, customers often complained about noise levels on the trains, in particular wheel-on-rail noise intruding into the train cars. Old BART trains had pocket doors that slide into the wall when they open. Seams in the door construction allowed noise to intrude from the outside. Also, the doors often rattled as the train moved, and door hardware was difficult to access to maintain.


To remedy these concerns, the Fleet of the Future uses micro-plug doors that slide on a track outside the train, similar to a mini-van door. As they slide closed, the doors pull in slightly to seal tightly around the door frame. This “plug” motion dampens the amount of noise that reaches the inside of the train, as well as providing better thermal insulation, making the cars more comfortable on very hot or cold days.



Color Scheme

We also asked customers for feedback on colors for the new train cars. As with the exterior, our goal was to pick colors that would be cool, modern, and welcoming, but tasteful and not oversaturated. We also selected a lighting temperature on the "cool" side as well as accent lighting to highlight the color scheme and convey a more modern feel. We also thought about practical considerations such as differentiating the color for priority seats for seniors and people with disabilities to help remind people to yield them to those who need them.


Also, we wanted colors to be modular so that fresh color schemes could be introduced over time. This led us to focus color on surfaces that could be easily modified in the future - seat coverings and flat end-walls. The color scheme we selected continued use of a BART blue as a base layer, accented with chartreuse green for the end walls and senior/disabled seats. We used a neutral charcoal color for the floor and a light neutral color for the walls and ceiling.

image of the train interior showing blue seating offset by chartreuse color for designated seats for seniors and people with disabilities and chartreuse end wallswith
Fleet of the Future Color Scheme
blue seats with orange accent for senior/disabled seating and end walls
One example of how colors could be modified in the future.

The new color scheme earned excellent ratings in surveys, but we encountered concerns that the colors were too similar to the Seahawks, a rival of our local NFL Team. We spent a lot of time correcting misinformation on this issue. First of all, BART has been using the color blue since before the Seahawks were an NFL Team. And secondly, neither of our colors resembled the Seahawks colors, as shown here:



We would bring a Seahawks jersey to events in case anyone brought up these concerns and lay it on top of the seats to show that the colors are dissimilar. We found that was an effective way to address the concern.


Wooden mockup

Design schematics and renderings on paper are great, but mockups and prototypes are really important because they give customers a feel for what a train car design would be like in reality. Our first major mockup at the MacArthur BART station was constructed using wood, and we invited customers to drop by for a visit.


Wooden mockup at MacArthur Station. Visitors sitting in wooden mockup.
Wooden mockup at MacArthur Station.

We also invited approximately 100 random riders to a research session in which we packed the mockup train car and had people get on and off to see how the interior design performed under crowded conditions.


Wooden mockup at MacArthur Station. View through the window shows wheelchair user in the designated wheelchair zone as well as other standing and seated passengers
Wooden mockup at MacArthur Station

Overall, feedback from mockup visitors affirmed our design direction, but comments led us to question the need for armrests between adjacent seats. Some customers liked armrests because armrests gave them something to push up against to stand up from a seated position, and they provided a greater feeling of separation between strangers sitting in adjacent seats. Others preferred not to have armrests and to make it easier to slide over into a window seat (including one gentleman who caught his pants pocket on the armrest as he slid over and ripped his pants). In a Fall 2013 survey, a plurality of customers opposed the armrests; therefore, the final train car design does not include middle armrests.


Another issue that arose was legroom where front and side facing seats intersect as shown in this photo from the old trains.



Customers sitting in the front facing seat next to the window often said they felt trapped in that location and had trouble getting by people sitting next to them. This had been a common complaint about the old cars, and customers raised the issue again during the Fleet of the Future mockup sessions. Customers told us that they needed more legroom in this location. Fortunately, after the mockup the Fleet of the Future project manager was able to work with the engineers to add more than one inch to the legroom in this location for the final design.


Bicycle accommodation

We engaged our bicyclist advisory committee to develop and test bicycle parking options. One of the earliest concepts was three stalls, each with a hook to hang a front or back tire, as shown here:

shows wooden mockup of the concept
Early Fleet of the Future bicycle parking concept

This concept required lifting the tire and moving it laterally to place it on the hook. Unfortunately, the lateral movement often interfered with adjacent bikes and required dexterity.


Later we developed an alternate concept that allowed bicyclists to insert their tires into flexible receptacles as shown below. This was similar to a design used in Copenhagen.



Many bicyclists also found this difficult to use due to the pressure required to push tires into the receptacles, especially wide tires. BART's Bicycle Advisory Task Force instead wanted a simple horizontal bar and strap that bicyclists can use to stack multiple bikes and tie them down, so that's what we used in the final design.


Bicycle bar with straps
Bicycle bar with straps

The bar attaches to the same modular system on the wall that is used by seats. This modularity could allow BART to substitute other bicycle parking concepts in the future, if better options become available.


Another design decision we made in response to bicyclist feedback was to eliminate flip down seats in bicycle areas due to concerns about that this could create conflict between customers.


Accessibility

During the Fleet of the Future UX process, we had dozens of meetings and UX testing sessions with the BART Accessibility Task Force and other accessibility organizations.


Blind customer seated in desgnated, green senior/disabled seating,  providing feedback on space under the seat for her guide dog

Our conversations with people with disabilities led to changes to the interior layout to enable passengers with more than one wheelchair user in their group to sit in the same area when they ride BART. As a result, both wheelchair areas are now located at the center door of each train car, and all floor-to-ceiling poles have been removed in this area to maximize accessible paths. The end doors have tripod poles that were requested by semi-ambulatory people with disabilities, senior citizens, other people with balance or mobility issues who need extra stability as the train accelerates and decelerates, and people who are not tall enough to reach overhead handholds. This plan was endorsed by the BART Accessibility Task Force as well as other disability organizations and is designed to meet the diverse needs of people with disabilities.


shows schematic interior layouts for the new D and E cars. In each case, wheelchair areas are near the middle doors, and bike areas are near the end doors.

A couple of other important refinements that came from UX testing: We raised the point where the three tripod branches meet the pole by four inches to eliminate possible pinch points for wheelchair users. And based on feedback from visually impaired customers, we added colored decals on the poles to increase contrast and make the poles more visible.


Amber decals on stanchions to make them more visible

Another issue we heard from the disability community is that riders often fail to vacate parking areas for wheelchair users. To address this, we embedded a wheelchair graphic in the floor of each wheelchair area to remind riders to yield the area to wheelchair users. This added cost to the project, but we felt it was important to do.


shows disability symbol embedded in floor

Other design features that help customers who use wheelchairs include:

  • LCD screens and intercoms placed directly across from the wheelchair areas; and

  • intercoms placed at a height of approximately four feet to make it easier for wheelchair users to access them.


Train operator talking with blind customer on board a pilot Fleet of the Future train
Train operator talking with blind customer on board a pilot Fleet of the Future train

We also worked with the blind and deaf communities, as well as riders with other mobility impairments, to solicit ideas and generate additional improvements. These included:

  • Automated announcements and braille signage for customers with vision impairments.

  • For customers with hearing impairments: interior and exterior digital displays, and induction loops. The induction loops transmit audio announcements directly to riders' hearing aids and cochlear implants. This system is one of the first of its kind in the world.

Decal indicating that the Fleet of the Future has induction loops  that relays audio messages to riders with hearing aids and cochlear implants
Decal indicating that the Fleet of the Future has induction loops that relays audio messages to riders with hearing aids and cochlear implants

  • For customers with mobility impairments: seats that are higher off the floor making it easier to stand up from a seated position, more handholds, and 50% more priority seats.

Vertical stanchions

Early in the design process, we asked BMW DesignWorks to develop imaginative, iconic designs for vertical stanchions.

three designs: 1) pole design concept with multiple branches leading to a circular lighting element on the ceiling; 2) pole design concept with three segments that flow from floor to ceiling, crossing each other in one spot between; 3) pole design concept that resembles a grape vine, with circular handholds attached to a gently curved pole

These iconic designs were discarded from further consideration prior to prototyping due to concerns that the handhold grip would be uncomfortable for customers as well as safety concerns. Depending on your point of view, this was either a smart decision or a missed opportunity to bring life and excitement to the design. The final design was less artistic and more functional, but also reasonably tasteful:


final design - a simple vertical pole with three vertical branches
Final Stanchion Design

The stanchions are another of the many modular components on the new cars so it is possible to replace them as part of future design "refreshes."


Passenger information

In addition to modern, automated announcements, we wanted the new trains to have digital screens, and we refined them based on customer input. The biggest improvement was six LCD screens inside each car that show a dynamic system map that updates continuously as the train moved along the route. These screens also highlight the next stop and show courtesy reminders and safety information. We worked with an information design firm to develop multiple layouts for the information on the screens and received customer feedback. The information design firm also created simulations of screen content for further feedback from customers. This helped us determine the most important content and avoid making the screens too cluttered.


Based on rider feedback, we refined the design to highlight the route of the train (yellow in the photo below) and pulsated a You Are Here bubble so riders could easily find their current location on the map.


shows LCD screen with dynamic BART system map, next station name, and a welcome aboard message showing the destination of the train
Digital screen on board the Fleet of the Future

The screens use pictograms whenever possible to best serve customers with limited English proficiency. In addition, key information and terminology, such as "next" and "delay", is translated into Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean.


The new train car interior design also includes LED screens on the ends of the cars that display next stop information.


And we deployed exterior LED signs showing the route color and destination of the train. This is helpful for passengers getting ready to board.


Exterior digital sign showing line color and destination station
Exterior digital sign showing line color and destination station

Exterior design

The exteriors of cars provide an opportunity to make a good first impression to customers as they see trains pulling up on a platform. To emphasize the newness of the new fleet, we commissioned exterior design options that would be seen as sleek and modern, but at the same time happy, transparent, and welcoming. Here is one of the early concepts for cab design. It provided a happy face and full windshield coverage for enhanced visibility.


shows front of cab with full windshield and headlights contoured to resemble a smile
Early Fleet of the Future cab design concept

We liked the general direction of this design but felt that the headlight shape resembled a strained smile, rather than a relaxed feeling. I used this sketch of Cruella De Ville to illustrate the sharp corners we wanted to move away from:


Disney's Cruella Da Ville

This ultimately led to a more relaxed feeling:


Fleet of the Future cab rendering showing inter-car barriers in a recessed position

One key innovation was to recess ADA inter-car barriers when the cars are in a lead or trailing position on a train. The inter-car barriers are detectable bars that help prevent riders who are blind or sight impaired from inadvertently stepping between cars and falling on to the platform. Here is a rendering showing how a car looks when inter-car barriers are extended. This is only used when the car is positioned in the middle of a train.


Fleet of the Future cab rendering showing inter-car barriers in an extended position
Fleet of the Future cab rendering showing inter-car barriers in an extended position

We also wanted to have a smooth color and texture transition from the white fiberglass cabs to the silver aluminum sides of the train. This is important to make the cab integrate with the side of the train and not look like a dissimilar add-on. We did this through modest use of decals to bridge the transition from white to silver as shown above.


In the category of "cutting room floor," one design concept we were unable to deliver was to surround the cab face with the color of the line each train operates on. This would have been done with programmable RGB (red, green, blue) LCD lighting, as illustrated here:


short video showing cab face. Rotates four different line colors to illustrate the concept.
Fleet of the Future face displaying line color

We engaged a lighting expert to create a full-scale mockup to demonstrate the concept:

mockup at the Hayward yard showing orange band of color surrounding cab face
Demonstration of LCD's that surround cab face with the line color

The test demonstrated rich and visible line colors from a distant view, but our engineers were concerned that the LEDs might fail and create maintenance issues so the concept was discarded. While this was a missed opportunity to adopt a truly unique and iconic design, the concept lives on in design concepts for new MARTA train cars in Atlanta.


Final train car model

Our UX design process culminated in a final train car model that was constructed from real materials (rather than wood). This phase provided a final checkpoint to confirm the design.


shows Aaron Weinstein standing in front of train car model along with three of the industrial designers
Train Car Model at manufacturer facility near Montreal. Aaron Weinstein and designers from Morelli Design.

More than 17,000 people visited the model at one of ten locations throughout the Bay Area in April – May 2014.

Prototype at Embarcadero Station. Visitors entering prototype car.
Final model at Embarcadero Station
Riders line up to board prototype at Embarcadero Station
Riders line up to board final model at Embarcadero Station







shows three people sitting in train car model filling out the surveys
Train car model guests fill out surveys

Test train

Later in the process, we had the manufacturer build a ten-car test train to run on the BART tracks. We parked the train at times and invited the public to come on board, and the excitement was palpable. All of the design outreach helped create excitement about the Fleet of the Future.


Waiting in line to see the final pilot train
Waiting in line to see the final test train

Results

The customer-centric design process paid off with rave reviews.


We surveyed riders on Legacy (old) train cars and on the Fleet of the Future. Fleet of the Future cars were rated much more favorably than Legacy cars on every single one of the sixteen aspects we asked customers on the survey.




And riders cheered the new trains in social media posts:

tweet saying: just heard a whole platform of people cheer as a new BART train glided down the track.

One final note: a huge thank you to the hundreds of BART, manufacturer, and design representatives who contributed to the Fleet of the Future UX process. The number of people to thank are far too numerous to list here, but the project could not have achieved its success without their tireless efforts.



Tips

Here are a few tips if you are just getting started with design of new trains or buses:

  1. Appoint a CX advocate to oversee the design and outreach process and ensure they have adequate decision-making authority. Establish a written agreement to memorialize how decisions will get made and who will make final decisions about issues when there is not agreement. This is essential both to keep a strong customer focus but also to keep projects on schedule.

  2. UX Testing takes time, and it is important to build that extra time into contract schedules with your vehicle manufacturer. It may take many months to build mockups and prototypes, do UX Testing, and remedy issues that surface. On the other hand, UX Testing can save time and money on the back end by avoiding costs for rework after customer acceptance issues arise post-production. Mockups, prototypes, UX testing, and revision cycles should be delineated in the bid package provided to potential manufacturers, and embedded into the final contract.

  3. Don't forget employees. Although this article focuses on customer-facing aspects of new trains, employees have critical insights that can help design better trains. BART considered employee input in design, and I have engaged with employees on vehicle procurement projects with other clients. The insights are often extremely helpful to ensure new trains or buses are easy to operate, robust, reliable, and maintainable.

  4. Don't forget peer transit agencies and transit vehicle manufacturers and suppliers. They often have ideas and experience that can be extremely helpful. Tell manufacturers and suppliers about pain points your customers have (e.g. personal safety concerns, cleanliness, seat comfort, passenger information, etc) and ask them for ideas on how to address those concerns.

  5. Active listening and response to customer and employee feedback is essential. All feedback should be logged in a comment/response format, and the design team should carefully consider every comment, push themselves to refine the design if at all possible, and log a response to every issue. These responses should then be reviewed by the CX team and upper management. Beware of excessive risk aversion. Avoidance of risk is important but if that becomes excessive then important customer-facing innovations get discarded.

  6. Wherever possible, develop and test out new concepts BEFORE procuring new vehicles. Research and Development (R&D) and UX testing take time and involve uncertainty, and that can be incompatible with contractual timeframes. I advise transit agencies to set up ongoing train and bus innovation centers where they can mockup new ideas for interior layouts, seating, handholds, and other amenities. That way agencies are ready to specify what they want in more detail when soliciting proposals from vehicle manufacturers, thereby reducing time and cost.


Prototype parked in front of SF City Hall in the early morning hours
Final train car model parked in front of SF City Hall in the early morning hours


Old BART train and new BART train side by side at a BART station
Old and New BART train side by side

train operator waving from the cab of a new Fleet of the Future train









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