Britain has been lagging behind when it comes to high-speed train travel. While passengers in Europe and China are being hurtled at speeds in excess of 250 miles per hour (400 kilometres per hour) along the tracks, those in Britain are being trundled along in old trains and on railway lines that have been there since the early nineteenth century.

But with the trains now at over capacity, especially those going into and out of London, the government has been under increased pressure to do something about both the speed and comfort of train travel.

So, in March 2010 it announced plans for a 335 mile (540 kilometre) high-speed rail link that would whisk travellers from the English capital all the way up to Scotland.

Called High Speed 2 (HS2) this document laid out plans for a new line that would almost halve journey times between London and Birmingham from the current eighty-four minutes to just forty-nine minutes. If the proposal is approved, construction could begin in 2017, with the first trains running by 2025.

But what will these trains look like?

In answer to this question London design agency Priestmangoode has unveiled its concept for the UK’s first high-speed train in a pre-emptive move to persuade the government of the urgent need to move forward as soon as possible with the project.

“We got a copy of the High Speed 2 proposal, which is a massive, thick document full of technical data, and we thought how dry and boring it was. So we decided that we would turn it into something more tangible,” says Paul Priestman, founding director of Priestmangoode, who heads up the consultancy’s product, transport and environment projects.

The aim of the resulting high-speed train concept, called Mercury, is for it to become the next British design icon, following in the footsteps of Concorde, the Spitfire, Rolls Royce and the Routemaster bus.

“I felt that what we needed is a real object of desire and symbol of Britishness – something that everybody can be proud of,” Priestman says.

The train will also champion British design and engineering, especially at this time of increased global competition. “It’s shameful that in the twenty-first century, when we have to compete more than ever with the rest of the world, we don’t have a modern-day global transport design icon to fly the flag for British industry,” he adds.

The international definition of high-speed rail is new lines with a speed of at least 250 kilometres per hour (155 miles per hour). Priestmangoode is currently working with Sifang on the design of high-speed trains in China and Priestman finds it ludicrous that the agency is working on train projects throughout the world but not in the UK.

In fact, China recently announced that it’s in negotiations with seventeen countries to build a high-speed rail network to Europe. This means that allegedly you could travel 5000 miles from London to Beijing in just two days. This may be some time away yet, but in the meantime Britain should put its stamp on the high-speed rail network.

The reason for all this investment in rail is because it’s really the most environmentally friendly way of travelling around the planet. Priestmangoode is hoping that with its design, people will be encouraged to leave their cars at home, decide not to use domestic air travel for short hops and instead make rail their first choice.

“We need to persuade people to travel by train to achieve a successful low-carbon economy. To do that, train travel needs to be as exciting as air travel and as sexy as the latest car. Not only does it need to be fast, it needs to be modern, luxurious and stylish. Mercury is all those things,” explains Priestman.

When it came to designing the exterior of the train Priestmangoode wanted to make it very distinctive and with its dramatic, extended nose section it has certainly achieved that. The train itself will be 400 metres long and will also have a double deck.

“In High Speed 2 it stated that a double-decker train is not ruled out and that is why we went for it. Being a new track and infrastructure, that would be possible,” says Priestman.

“Also, in the UK we have a fantastic history of double-deck transport, like the London Routemaster bus so, why not use it?”

Inspiration for the design also came from the classic Mallard steam trains, which were around in the heyday of British steam locomotion during the 1930s.

“We quite liked the clean sides of the Mallard and so we picked up on that in our design. There is also a bit of racing car reference in there too,” adds Priestman. “Basically, it’s just got to look beautiful – people must look at it and want to travel on it.”

Similarly, the interior quashes our perception of what train interiors should be and is more akin to modern living. The contemporary and flexible, open-plan design includes commuter seats that incorporate movie, music and games entertainment systems.

“One of the advantages of doing a project like this is that we can push the boundaries a little bit and really make something exactly as you want,” says Priestman.

They drew on their experience from other sectors including hotel environments, aircraft and ship interiors and used this learning to create an interior that really explores all the possibilities.

“I think that what’s fun about doing a future concept is that you can think about things that would be possible if you had time to develop them, and with most of the projects we do. They need them quickly but this is an opportunity to push the design forward,” says Priestman.

Features in the interior include bicycle storage, a children’s play area and an observation deck. Glass also features very prominently with very large windows to watch the countryside as it whizzes by, as well as a panel of glass running along the ceiling of the top deck.

“One thing I love about travelling on trains is looking out the window. I think it is very relaxing and you ponder about things – it’s a lovely way to travel. So, I really liked the idea of maximising the use of glass,” says Priestman.

One feature that particularly stands out as being very innovative is the private glass booths. So, as well as the traditional commuter seats, these booths are fitted with computer screens for family groups or for business meetings.

“It’s like a ski lift gondola or the Millennium Wheel in London – that sort of pod-type feel and the idea is that it doesn’t take up any more space onboard the train,” explains Priestman.

“They are also a reference to things on trains that have worked very well in the past. I think the old compartments were very popular but they disappeared because of security, vandalism and kids misbehaving in them. So we have done a glass area that can be easily checked for security but you still get that sound insulation and feeling of privacy.”

The luxury first-class section with its couches, dining area and bar mirrors the distinction between first and economy class on air travel. The ceiling has also been cut through, allowing for a double height space, and in addition to the bar there will also be a dining section with a restaurant.

“It’s all possible on a train because weight isn’t a great issue and as long as you have your capacity right (hence the double deck) then you can bring back those facilities,” says Priestman.

“I think its those sorts of things that are better than what you would get on a plane – the idea that you could wander to the restaurant or to the viewing deck.”

Since its launch, the Mercury concept has really captured people’s imagination as it has shown that transport design can be aspirational. An article appearing in the Daily Mail even called it “The Concorde of the Tracks”.

“It was really about getting design to politically move the situation, and the response has been absolutely incredible,” says Priestman.

His hope is that once government and the powers that be see the response to this tangible design of what a high-speed train could be, they won’t be able to back away from their plan of installing the London-to-Scotland high-speed rail line.

“They will have to go for something really stunning and not a cast-off train from Europe,” says Priestman. “It’s got to be a UK train and I think that is where its going to be exciting.”   

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