Keith Strode-Penny, Creative Director at Auckland based Barnacle Design, discusses the importance of sustainability in New Zealand’s growing rail industry and the role industrial designers play in creating innovative ideas that underpin environmental and economic issues.
Barnacle Design has been part of a team which played an instrumental role in providing New Zealand with more attractive trains providing a better customer experience. Patronage leapt from 13 million in the year 2000 to 27 million passengers per year last year. The KiwiRail Scenic trains have enjoyed great success over the last couple of years with numbers now getting to the point where there are capacity constraints to further growth. Design awards achieved at the time of introduction into service have in the opinion of Keith Strode-Penny, been surpassed by Trip Advisor reports. This is real feedback from paying customers who consistently award the services with 4.5 stars or better and Certificates of Excellence.
Challenges for rail in New Zealand
And yet, in early last year, reports emerged of plans to close the national rail network down outside of the commuter networks of New Zealand’s two main cities. Given the efforts put in by many people to make rail a success, to say that this was a shock was something of an understatement. The Scenic trains achieved an operating surplus of NZ$3 million last year on operating revenues of NZ$25 million. However, passenger services like rail freight do not cover the full cost of the upkeep of the tracks they run on. In a long, mountainous and lightly populated country like New Zealand, this is a challenge.
What ensued in the media was a discussion of what economic value and sustainability meant for rail. Tourism is important to New Zealand, especially to rural communities. According to New Zealand’s principal industry tourism organisation TIANZ, each visitor night is worth NZ$208. The Scenic trains create value by dispersing tourism away from the main centres. For example, a generation of 50,000 visitor nights per annum, solely due to the existence of the Scenic trains, equates to NZ$10.4 million of economic benefits to the regions.
Closure reports continued to periodically circulate right up until the last few days with the release of one of the Treasury reports discussing curtailment and shutdown options. Much recent transport narrative within New Zealand’s mainstream media has the future evolving towards platoons of driver-less electric cars and trucks. However, despite the negative press, public statements made by politicians over the last few days indicate the beginnings of political consensus that rail perhaps does have a long term future in New Zealand.
One other very good piece of news among the turmoil is the go-ahead for Auckland’s downtown underground City Rail Link which is set to transform Auckland in the same way as Crossrail is achieving for London. The battle to get this across the start-line was also hard fought with many commentators skeptical of its value.
It is nice to speculate that the hard work that the rail industry has put into developing better quality services paid off.
Our role for our industry
For those involved in the rail industrial design sector that are passionate about its future, the New Zealand experience is a timely reminder of the responsibilities the industry carries to help make that future happen.
The designer’s role is to design and specify with an eye on sustainability and “all-of-life” costs. Sustainability encompasses economic, social and environmental factors. There are a myriad of innovations that will deliver greater sustainability. They are just waiting for those with the courage and the skills to “make it work”.
More often than not, the simple solution is also an object of elegance. In a society where the customer has choice, the product needs to be attractive.
Product development is a multi-disciplinary process and marketing plays a critical role. Marketing specialists are charged with setting that initial compass bearing toward product success “over the horizon”. In a development team that is working well, there is a shared sense of purpose between marketing, industrial design and engineering and a strong solution emerges.
Good industrial designers advocate the “best value” solution. The right answer offers greater economic benefits to society than competing modes or ideas. Whether designing a “niche market” tourist train in New Zealand, or a “large-scale” metro system in the Asia-Pacific region, the same factors hold true.
When designers do their job well, they should tell the world about it! This isn’t bragging – it is survival. In a global free-market economy, the potential for those with big ideas, and loud voices, to change the world is profound. In a competition of ideas, those in the rail sector have a great story to tell about their industry.