Generally acknowledged to be the leading transport designer in Britain, and according to Homes & Garden magazine ‘maybe even the world’, Priestman has the demeanour of a man individuated by his success. Impeccably polite and engaging, his mind-set is toward ideas that push boundaries – the agency is involved with a private project to send a couple on a 501-day round-trip to Mars in 2018 – and he is passionate about getting people out of cars and onto public transport
Having just returned from New York where he picked up a prestigious IDEA Award from the Industrial Designers Society of America for an aviation concept, Priestman is happy to admit that he is primarily a fan of rail. ‘We like to think we’re the leading transport agency in the world and what’s really interesting is that we bring all our learnings from the shipping, aviation and car industry and apply it to rail.’ Indeed, Richard Branson was so impressed with Priestman’s lie-flat Virgin Atlantic bed that he asked the company to design the interior of what became the Pendolino.
As Priestman puts it, ‘We work with cities and with countries. And at the moment, high-speed trains are almost the symbol of modernity of countries; they have that amazing emotive power. What we specialise in with airlines and rail is in effect the branding of countries, so they’re culturally correct but also the symbol of that country. And we’re quite careful not to stand up and wave the Union Jack saying ‘British designed’, because that’s not the spirit of what we’re doing, so we keep quite out of respect for those countries.’
Priestman was recently appointed global creative director of one of the world’s largest rolling-stock manufacturers, Chinese firm CSR Sifang – the culmination of a relationship that began in 2009 when it asked the agency to design the ‘world’s biggest train’, and in 2011 Priestmangoode opened an office in Qingdao, northern China in order to service the client.
‘It’s an interesting move,’ says Priestman. ‘There aren’t many locomotive manufacturers who would appoint a foreigner to such an important role, and particularly in China where CSR Sifang is a government-owned company. I think it shows how forward thinking they are, and they really do understand the importance of brand and design. If we’re going to encourage people to get out of airplanes and cars there has to be something done about that. I mean Beijing had a two-day traffic jam, it was gridlock and people just walked away and left their cars on the highway. ’

No need for stations

Moving back to the theme we agreed to talk on, good old British stations, it’s on record that Priestman doesn’t see the need for them in the long-term. His Moving Platforms concept (www. proposes a system whereby local trams move to the outskirts of a city to ‘dock’ with a passing high speed train via a gangway that extends out from both trains allowing passengers to transfer across. ‘I thought, wouldn’t it be great to get on a tram outside this building and then seamlessly
go to another street in another city,’ says Priestman animatedly. ‘The nature of high-speed lines now is that they have to go around the outside of cities because it’s too expensive to go through the middle, in which case you’re having to build another car park, or use more taxis or buses to get to those links. And if we’re talking about a new line from China to Europe or across the East to West Coast of America, if high-speed trains are going to compete with long-haul air travel then we’re going to have to do something about them stopping and starting, because it adds hours to the journey.’
I suggest the concept makes me feel giddy just thinking about it, and Priestman lets out a loud and hearty laugh. ‘The classic one is ‘So what if granny gets her shopping bags stuck in the doors, is she going to get chopped in half and end up half on the East Coast and half on the West?’ It’s definitely a far in the future concept and really it’s for big destinations or some of the intercontinental tracks that have been planned, but it’s had a massive amount of hits on You Tube and I’ve been asked to talk about it all over the world. It’s just like docking in space except on the ground, which is a little easier.’
So what would Priestman’s station of the future look like, assuming we’re not at the Moving Platforms stage any time soon. ‘The question still remains,’ he says, ‘Do we need stations? The word ‘terminus’ is out of date because you never stop at that point so let’s scrap that. And think about the joined up nature of public transport. I’m a great advocate for trying to get more people to use public and not private transport because I think it’s the only way forward, and design is everything to do with getting people to consider that. Moving Platforms isn’t a new idea, I think when trains were first invented there were people questioning why they have to stop, because it does seem crazy that you still have to stand on a piece of concrete and get wet when it rains while you’re waiting.’
The idea of re-using what we already have in station buildings is greatly appealing to Priestman since he is as much of a conservationist as transport designer. ‘A lot of them are redundant, boarded up and I found this recent concept, not ours, to use them as store houses for internet orders to be a brilliant idea. If you‘re at work you do your internet shopping and collect your parcel on the way home a couple of days’ later. That is a fantastic re-use of infrastructure and buildings. And that’s where it gets really interesting for me – I love that kind of thinking, of re-using what we’ve got.’

A consistent approach to train design needed

Having people get on and off trains faster to reduce dwell times at stations is important to Priestman, ‘and that’s all to do with design.’ Platform doors are going to become a requirement he believes ‘because that will help with passenger flow and minimise the unfortunate accidents we still have, and congestion could also be eased by encouraging people to walk instead of taking the tube for one or two stops.’
More sources of information will also cut hanging around at stations apparently. ‘Because everyone is going to be mobile connected.’ Even older people I ask? ‘I think they are more and more. The amount of people I see reading kindles now, silver surfers I think they’re called – people are going to be reading their devices rather than looking around for information.’
Living and working in London, Priestman’s perspective is clearly very much that of an urbanite. ‘On my phone I can call a cab using my Hailo app, I can tell when my bus is due to arrive and I pack up work and walk to the bus stop. Or I can use a Boris bike to get from A to B.’ Though many of Priestman’s comments reflect his position as a techno-savvy and physically able person, the agency’s work is incredibly conscious of the needs of all travellers. ‘Everything we do has to be as accessible as possible, but it is ridiculous that we have bits of aluminium ramps to get on trains. It’s 2014 and it’s mad.
I understand the issues because we have different rolling stock running on the same track, but there needs to be a judgement on this. Someone needs to say ‘From now on every new train is going to have this floor level’, and then eventually we will get over the problem. But inappropriate vehicles being bought by private companies and stuck on a line which then takes longer for people to get on and off clogs up the whole system, so someone needs to be quite firm.’ The manufacturers I suggest? ‘Someone needs to…I mean I’m quite happy to take a view on it myself it’s all so obvious,’ laughs Priestman.

Global learnings

In terms of train design Priestman feels the more conversations that are had globally the greater the learnings, ‘But the different characteristics of countries is incredible,’ he points out. ‘I met with the New York Subway last week and they asked ‘How can you have fabric seats? Because on their system they would be destroyed. American trains are very utilitarian but it works for that society. They have different issues to us, and fewer CCTV cameras because of their civil liberties lobby. So it’s fascinating to work with different cultures and we have to address their needs. We’re doing a train in New Zealand right now where they want surf board racks, which is great! And on Chinese trains every vestibule has boiling water because everybody has tea.
We’re also trying to push that all trains should have a defibrillator because they are proven to save lives. To me design is all about problem solving and making things better, not just about styling, and that goes for stations and we need to look at what works in other countries
and what’s good for them.’
With all the new build stations around the world, Priestman must see some amazing sights. ‘Near our office in Qingdao they’re building a high speed interchange the size of Wembley stadium – bigger. And if that was being built in the Uk it would be the biggest headline news, yet when we drive past it, they’re like ‘Oh yeah, it’s a new station’, and they just carry on. The scale and speed of development is just incredible compared to ours. I mean how many years is HS2 going to take, if it happens?’
I wonder what country’s stations Priestman is most impressed by. ‘Japan. I love the fact that on the platform you have some good food offerings and the stations are spotlessly clean. Singapore is beautiful and I think the rail link at Hong kong is probably one of the best in the world, which I think is to do with its link to the airport. As you walk from the plane through immigration and baggage handling, the train is in the same building. It’s perfect. To me it’s like ‘Why on earth would you get a taxi?’

HS2 a chance to fly the flag

Speaking about HS2, Priestmangoode is hoping to be chosen to design the trains. ‘I strongly believe the vehicles should be a great symbol of British design and engineering and manufactured here in the Uk,’ says Priestman.
The agency has ‘had some discussions with HS2 Ltd’ and Priestman is pleased that the ‘government really loved our Mercury train design. It became a bit of a pin up boy in fact. It’s beautiful and designed with a nod to the old Mallard steam trains. We wanted that ‘Britishness’ and tried to get that sense of place and feeling, which is very important. It would be a disaster if HS2 got some sort of reject Euro train to run on the new line, what a missed opportunity that would be. Obviously it would be in the interests of a lot of manufacturers to say ‘You’ve got a train right here, use that – it doesn’t need any development’, but that would not be culturally correct.’
I noticed that in reference to HS2, Priestman says ‘If it goes ahead’ quite frequently. Does he think it will? ‘I don’t think I should comment on the political side but I’m a great advocate for new rail lines – what’s the alternative – another six line highway that takes up ten times the amount of space?’
In any case, Priestman must find the debate quite irritating given the high speed developments he is involved with around the world and he feels the need for HS2 is ‘obvious’. ‘Go through any part of the countryside and you see the effect of the railway, and I must admit I quite like it, the English landscape lends itself extremely well to beautiful pieces of architecture. A high speed line is slightly different in that way I know and it’s not great if your house is in the way, but there is a need as it encourages investment in the Uk – you only have to look at the effect of rail development in China which has been very positive.’

Capacity an issue

A constant theme of Priestman’s conversation is around increasing capacity, and he strongly believes that double decker cars are a sensible idea. ‘They have them in France and the UK, why
not here? In a small country like the UK optimum capacity is imperative which is why our Mecury design is a double deck because you get about 30-40 per cent more capacity, but at the moment it doesn’t seem to be under consideration – I don’t know why.’ He gave a talk at the Design Museum last year on Getting
the grit out of the system, ‘because in developed countries you can’t just keep building more motorways and railway tracks – London’s going to fall apart because there are so many tunnels. So we’ve got to make what we have work better, and I believe that’s through technology. You can get driverless cars going at 100km an hour inches from the bumper in front, so what’s the difference? I think there will be technology that allows more trains to travel on the existing infrastructure and when we can do that, then we’re going to get the capacity.’
I pointed out that in one of his interviews, Priestman said the inventions of the future are here now, they’re just too expensive to become mainstream. ‘Yes, the way vehicles are controlled needs to change. You could control the trains from a central point, which would minimise the risk of accidents – it seems crazy that someone is driving along looking at a light and then deciding to slow down. I still think that someone needs to be on board to help people and deal with the public, but whether they need to be controlling the vehicles is probably moving on from that, as it is all over the world now.’

The big issue with advertising

Highly eclectic, Priestmangoode employs designers, ergonomists, materials and finishes specialists, retail experts – ‘Everything to do with a train,’ says Priestman, ‘when Richard Branson asked us to look at the Pendolinos and Cross Countries, he said ‘We want someone who hasn’t designed a train before’, because he thinks the passenger experience is what counts.’ But an issue for Priestman is how the industry sells itself to those passengers. ‘One of the big problems that the rail industry and public transport encounters is the advertising that goes on from the auto industry which always shows cars gliding down an empty highway with the sun shining, but the rail industry can’t do that and so it’s at a constant disadvantage – the fact that you can get off the train and be in the centre of a city doesn’t seem to be shown.’
I agreed that rail ads tend to be slightly ironic showing people sat on a train looking fed up. ‘Yes, or on a tube train everyone is looking down at their mobile or newspaper. Something is not right around the world, there isn’t a positive campaign for rail transport which is unfair and lopsided. In fact Virgin Rail is probably one of the few Toc’s that sells itself on the experience rather than cost from A to B and how long it takes to get to B.’

Loves trains

Priestman is a very busy man. ‘My diary is crazy,’ he admits. Part of David Cameron’s entourage on a recent visit to China, ‘I’ve been with him once or twice,’ he throws in, ‘I imagine he gets to hear some pretty high level views on the rail industry. ‘I do yes,’ and his answer is polite but circumspect. ‘Boris is a great fan of rail. But I think what’s great about the UK is that there’s a real love of railways, you get the fanatics, and there are more privately run Heritage lines than anywhere else in the world.
When we first started working with Virgin, the industry was going through a really bad patch. There had been some horrendous accidents and under-investment from the previous government. But look where we are now, I think things have moved on tremendously – apart from some horrendous mess-ups with the awarding of franchises, which is ridiculous. The ECML was doing well and there weren’t people taking out million pound bonuses.’
It’s obvious that Priestman loves the whole process of trains. ‘One of the lovely aspects is looking out of the window, and the motion, and feeling drowsy in the afternoon – all those sorts of things which on an airplane you never feel. You can’t wander off and stretch your legs on a plane, or go to the restaurant.’
That city centre to city centre aspect is key for Priestman in his working life. ‘I mean who would fly to Paris now? You’d be crazy to. The station experience at St Pancras is fantastic and if I get on a train at 10:00pm, I can go to sleep in a hotel-type cabin, wake up and go to the meeting and come back again, and save money on the hotel and all of the hassle. I think that is the way that we’re going to combat long-haul travel. If you’re going from Europe to the Far East that approach of a day and two nights and you’ll be there is good, but if you go by air it’s not that much of a saving if you think about the hotel at the other end and sleeping and recovering.’
Rail is the way forward in mass transit for Priestman then. ‘Of course the other industries will fight back but there are so many positives to rail. Many countries have the infrastructure so the hard work is done, it’s just looking at how to make the best use of it, to make it more efficient and transport more people. Rail needs to join the internet age, whereby you can go wherever you want in the world – it’s going to be a very different place in 10 to 20 years’ time and we have to think of alternative ways to travel.’