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Hard to handle

Open door using outside handle

Open door using outside handleBritish Rail’s drop-the-window- then-stick-your-hand-outside- to-use-the-handle doors puzzled over by Don Norman in The Design of Everyday Things are still very much around, though often refurbished and repainted as with this delightful/vile pink First Great Western-liveried example.

I’m assuming that this design was intended to introduce an extra step into the door-opening procedure, a speed-hump, if you like, to make it less likely that a door was opened accidentally while the train was in motion (before central door locking was introduced – which makes it less necessary). From a usability point of view, we might immediately dismiss any system which has to have such detailed instructions to inform the user about performing such a simple task, but it’s certainly interesting to consider this kind of poka-yoke. Being forced to lowering the window to get to the handle is almost like a modal ‘Are you sure you want to delete this file?’ dialogue box.

Open door using outside handle

However, other concerns come into play and now need to be considered in addition: this sticker suggests keeping the window closed to cut drag and save fuel, but as I walked along the train, almost all these windows were dropped down, left in that position by the last person to close the door. The urgency of scrabbling to lower the window, stick your hand out and use the handle, with a crowd of commuters behind you probably overwrites any intentions to close the window again engendered by the ‘Make a small change’ sticker.

Open door using outside handle


  1. Dan

    Just noticed – Crosbie Fitch mentioned this in a comment a few weeks ago, in fact:

    I’ve often been amused when travelling on old railway carriages, that removed interior handles on doors for ’safety’, when passengers unfamiliar with this new convention had to rapidly work it out (open window, stick hand out to use exterior handle) in a few seconds before the train set off again. Small signs then affixed saying “To open door, lower window” didn’t always help (probably noted subsequently – or pointed out at the time by RTFM wags).

  2. It’s something of a nostalgia trip to see those still around.

    It leads me to recall how I, on approach to my station, would slide down the window and unlatch the door, holding it closed until the train had slowed to a walking pace for me to step out and continue.

    This poka-yoke does change behaviour, but not necessarily as the designer might hope. As an impatient commuter, I tried to speed up the the mechanism that impeded me. I did think about, but largely dismissed, that I was putting my arm and head outside a moving train, through a door that could get caught by the wind, or could catch an innocent person too close to the edge of the platform.

    Contrast this with how in the 21st century, the Southern trains into London Victoria will often stand still for up to a minute before unlocking the push-button doors. Is there something clever going on, or is it just to ensure stressed commuters stay that way for a bit longer?

  3. Dan

    That’s a good point about the delay before unlocking the doors that often occurs with modern trains. I wonder if (as they all unlock at once, I think) something affecting one set of doors (e.g. someone standing too close on the platform) ends up affecting everyone?

    Some interesting/pertinent discussion here too about Australian train doors and users’ anxiety.

  4. If the window slid up, and fell back under gravity if not held open by an object protruding through the gap, then it would close automatically after it was used.

    Electronic door opening on arrival (without gratuitous delays, and with a manual override to open doors in emergencies) would be best of course.

  5. The design on HST trains – which began as BR’s Intercity 125s and are now relegated to FGW and GNER routes – has been like this for about fifteen years. The change came around the same time that slam-doors were being phased out.

    The problem with the A/C on HSTs is two-fold. Firstly, no-one realises that you need a sealed (or mostly sealed) compartment for A/C to work: just look at the number of shops who have A/C but leave the doors wide open (causing the A/C to work triple time, making the shop too dry and cold, and racking up the ‘leccy bills). Second, even if you realise that and close the door windows, the increase in luggage size since the HST was designed means that often the pressure pad to the inner carriage door is stuck permenantly open by some suitcase the size of Peru sitting next to the luggage rack. Or commuters crammed onto the fast train to Reading.

    A totally different problem with FGW trains is that either the A/C is on full blast and you get goosebumps, or it decides to fail during a heatwave. 😉

    Trains with automatic doors – and the central locking on the HSTs – is selective. So if a train pulls in at a station with a short platform, the guard (sorry, ‘customer service manager’) will only unlock the doors that have platform in front of them. The delay in the doors opening is normally because the guard is not near the door controls (which sit at either end of each carriage).

    My main dislike of modern trains over the HSTs is passenger volume. BR used to send 10 or 12 carriage trains from the south west to the north east (a v. busy route), with two toilets per carriage. Virgin Cross Country will send 8 or 6 carriages up, and have only one toilet per carriage. So whilst I know the Virgin Cross Country trains are better in every safety respect, I just find them a vile transport experience and will avoid whenever I can.

    None of 3: often, the windows are so stiff that the people inside struggle to get them down to get them open!

    Sorry, epic waffle. My father and grandfather were railwaymen, and my partner is in rail safety. If I had to endure all this talk, so does someone else!

  6. Dan

    Thanks Mags, that’s a usefully knowledgeable contribution. Despite this post only a few weeks ago, I’d thought of FGW’s “keep windows closed for the sake of the environment” admonition in terms of cutting drag rather than improving the A/C’s effectiveness.

    I guess most of the time I end up on the First Great Western HSTs with outside handles, they’re so crowded that I just don’t notice the air conditioning at all (unlike South West Trains’ Desiros and Junipers where, at least for the first couple of years of service, they always seemed really really cold).

    Did the HSTs with this kind of door always have central door locking or was this retro-fitted? I only ask after seeing a well-dressed gent with suit and briefcase, running alongside one pulling away at Reading the other day, grabbing the handle and trying to open the door, unsuccessfully, amidst a lot of shouting and tutting from the FGW dispatchers. That guy clearly thought he could open the door while the train was moving as on the slam-door types: what vestigial memory was lurking in there? Did the presence of the exterior handle signal to him that the door could be opened while moving? How often does he attempt the same thing?

    I’ll admit to becoming increasingly fascinated by railway design – it combines engineering, interaction design, service design, safety, long-term effects of decisions made long ago under different circumstances, and so on, and it’s easy to observe users actually navigating the system.

    Even watching and listening to people trying to work out what tickets to buy, or wayfinding in a station with loads of platforms where some have trains going both directions (e.g. Reading), or why a barrier won’t let them through, or how confident they are that a door’s closed properly when it’s not, gives incredibly rich information about how the system design accords with people’s mental models, and how it doesn’t. A railway network is pretty much a huge ongoing experimental lab for mechanical engineering, cognitive psychology, logistics technology, service design, interaction design, ergonomics, user experience (and perhaps corporate infrastructure too).

  7. “often, the windows are so stiff that the people inside struggle to get them down to get them open!”

    Since I was suggesting completely redesigning them, or better yet changing the system entirely, this doesn’t serve to refute me.

  8. Dan

    These are ‘legacy systems’: I don’t think such a system is used on any new trains. They’re on refurbished old rolling stock (the British Rail High-Speed Train), but, as I understand it, because the quality, reliability and customer satisfaction of the HST is so high compared to alternatives that have been tried, they’ve been retained in service by a number of operators. They’re mostly very good trains from a passenger’s point of view, this design ‘quirk’ (to modern eyes) notwithstanding.

  9. Yes, the HST central locking system was retro-fitted in the mid or late 90s (I’d need to ask the rail geek boys to be sure – and that would be a long conversation). Certainly I can recall running over the bridge at Paddington, dashing down onto platform 1 and hauling myself onto the night train as it started to pull out in the early 90s.

    ATP was also retro-fitted in 2000, after the Ladbroke Grove crash. When you look at what happened to the carriages of the HSTs at Ladbroke Grove and also Southall, compared to the relative lack of impact on the Pendalino after Grayrigg, you can see why the Pendalino is a safer design. It’s just a bloody uncomfortable customer experience.

    For the full retro HST experience, I recommend the train from Dublin to Killarney in Ireland. Not only have the fittings in the carriage not been updated since the 1970s, the soap dispenser in the toilet was one where you turned a wheel and got a handful of washing powder soap, and the toilet paper was waxed sheets, and the gent opposite me had brought a full packed dinner complete with tartan thermos flask. I was instantly a five year old kid staring in amazement at this futuristic new train (compared to the old diesel locos with the corridor carriages).

    If you want to idle away an hour claiming to be checking out the early design features of the HSTs You Tube has a lot of videos – includes lots by train spotters.

  10. They still don’t learn. Even on modern trains.

    “The front 4 carriages of this train will do X. The rear 4 carriages of this train will do Y. This is carriage 3 of 8. Ensure you are on the correct part of the train.”

    There is a grievous problem with this statement in that it assumes the reader is familiar with a convention on numbering carriages (and that this convention accords with the travel of the train rather than attaching to carriages irrespective of travel). You will of course learn this convention upon painful experience should you test your hypothesis and fail.

    They could have dropped the patronising and redundant “Ensure you..” advice, and replaced the characters saved by improving the preceding statement thus: “This is a front carriage (3rd from the front of 8).”

    The problem is caused by providing one half of information in relative terms front vs back, and the other half in nominal terms ‘3 of 8’, and no way to reconcile the two. At best it’s a test for the reader to deduce what convention could have been naively assumed to be universal or unambiguous.

    I wonder how many inexperienced rail travellers about to embark upon a train count the carriages in the order they pass them and assume the 3rd carriage they got into was therefore carriage number 3? Now it may just so happen that upon a fateful visit to the UK this not so worldly-wise rail traveller wandered along the carriages from embarking upon the first without counting, and deduced that being informed that they were on ‘carriage 3 of 8’ meant they were on the 3rd from the rear, and upon realising the train was to split and that they needed to be in the rear 4, would remain where they were. They’d then end up potentially 50 miles from their intended destination due to an easily rectifiable assumption that all citizens of the world had been taught the UK’s ‘Classic Train Carriage Numbering System’.

  11. I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that the reason that the Southern trains sometimes wait ages in Victoria for the doors to open is that the train is fitted with a GPS device, which only allows the doors to be opened when the train is in a station. However at Victoria station there’s often no GPS signal, and so the train driver has to turn the system off before the doors will open.

    On another topic, there’s a whole post to be written about the fact that on the Pendalinos, the ‘flush’ button for the toilets is behind where the toilet seat goes when it’s up, forcing you to close the lid before flushing the loo. Definite ‘design with intent’. Not sure whether the reason is to keep the smells in, or to avoid people getting splashed by the nasty chemicals that are violently swilled around the pan though.

  12. Cav

    In response to Frankie Roberto’s flush button question . . .

    The Pendolinos employ vacuum toilets – they suck the waste from the pan. Should you be amply portioned in your posterior, and thus be capable of forming a seal with a toilet seat upon which you are sat, then the combination of the seal effect and the suction of the toilet can lead to a most unpleasant experience (althought I’m sure that there are some people out there who might enjoy that kind of thing!).

    To eliminate the risk of this happening (as far as reasonably practicable), the flush button is therefore deliberately located behind the upright seat lid. This forces users to be clear of the seat before the flush cycle can be initiated.

    Hope that helps.


  13. Grant Finlay

    Sadly fascinating discussion! I came looking for the answer to the Victoria train door delay question – and found myself thinking again about railway design.

    Over the past few days I’ve travelled to Bristol, Manchester, London, Croydon and Oxford by rail – and at every station the signage has been different.

    On South West Trains (I think) the platform indicators tell the numer of minutes until the train is due. On Southern stations the indicator gives the actual time of departure. At Manchester Airport the departure time is on the THIRD line of the plasma display, lost amongst the list of intermediate stations. The current time is in the first line, in much larger type. At Manchester Piccadilly, video displays on the platforms are not working at all – forcing a trip out into the lobby where there is a bizarre computer A-Z display, so one is forced to wait until it is the turn of one’s destination to be listed, and then find it among dozens of others before the screen changes again.

    Dot matrix carriage displays are used to very varying effect. Some tell you the next station (v.useful), others tell you the name of the operator (which is usually painted and printed everywhere) or the number of the carriage (not v useful unless the train is going to split, as per previous correspondent). Some above-seat displays on scroll a screed of information, forcing boarding passengers to loiter by the seat just to find out whether it is free or not.

    I am sure regular travellers on any given line quickly become accustomed to custome and practice on their service – but for infrequent, cross-country travellers and tourists, the system is confusing and misleading.

    Is there any research on how much time is wasted – or journeys wrongly made – on account of poor signage or on train information?

    Isn’t this what the ATOC exists for – to introduce a high standard of provision of information in a consistent and meaningful way?


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