Trains as a more than transport experience – a project exploring the discursive opportunities within railway travel.
Railways are reflective of many of the complex environmental and humanitarian crises of current times. As a symbol of modernity and catalyst for colonialism, they have contributed to a destructive path of growth, consumption and exploitation. Within the UK, railway’s celebrated engineering heritage is indicative of a cultural obsession with former “glories” that fuels nativist politics and distorts historical perception.
In examing railways as a more than transport experience, I identified four channels; temporal, contemplative, social and geographical. The temporal channel signifies areas of discourse whilst the other channels explore design opportunities for engaging discourse.
Within a flawed system, future thinking is likely to follow an unsustainable path. It is a responsibility of design to subvert conventions within existing frameworks as a constructive resistance to the relentless pace of modernity and open up agonistic interpretations of environments and systems. It is the role of sustainable design to reject solutionism and look to embrace complexity.
Acting not from a position of authority but of inquiry, inventive design interventions can create conceptual dissonance which inspires inquiry, challenging us to see the world differently. When socially situated, interventions can entangle dreams with reality and invoke sustainable responsibilities.
This project looks to repurpose railway infrastructure as a discursive network, utilising window gazing as an experiential catalyst for innovation (a change to established conventions) in order to promote agonistic sustainable conversations that encourage greater social responsibility toward the many complex future challenges.
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, a work-from-home culture has suddenly become a reality and looks likely to continue for many even when it is safe to return to work. Freed from the strains and demands of the rush-hour commute, will it be more possible for us to imagine railways functioning as a more than transport experience – a space for discourse and conceptual exploration? This vision of post-pandemic travel formed the conceptual context for this project which I have communicated through a poetic re-appropriation of public service announcements commonly heard whilst travelling by train.
The fast-moving view experienced through the window of a train offers just the right level of distraction to promote the flow of deep thought. At the least, the flickering strobing sensation can induce a meditative state of reflection and at the most, present a panoramic view of the sublime which can help move us beyond the preoccupation with our own being. By creating moments of train-dreaming, window gazing allows the brain to enter a restive state that promotes divergent thinking.
But at the same time, such an experience shields us from environmental detail, leaving the passenger confined to their own limited experience of the world. If the goal is to engage sustainable responsibility and agnostic considerations, then a more direct and embodied confrontation with sociality and the environment is needed. This involves considering the train journey as a whole, incorporating the start and end of the journey as part of the experience itself, the on-board with the off – where the friction of embodied engagement can develop new perspectives.
Based on my insights into the railway experience and ideas of embodied cognition, I developed a design methodology for using a train journey as an experiential catalyst for innovation. The idea is that this methodological model could be applied to explore a range of different discourses and train routes.
Through enactment workshops, embodied exercises will be explored at the boarding (A) and alighting (B) points of the journey. Whilst in transit, reflective exercises are explored to encourage a divergent thinking response.
Enactment workshops involve exercises in sensory discovery and detailing. Engaging participants in direct sensory involvement with an environment or place. These workshops would look to make the familiar unfamiliar and challenge preconceived patterns of perception to invite new insights.
Divergent reflections happen on the train. Information is shared with participants via lectures, text, film or audio (curated to support the activities and locations of the enactment workshops). Through activities inspired by the act of window gazing, participants are pushed to make divergent connections and explore new ideas. Train based tools and tasks that involve continuous motion are used to encourage divergent reflections in response to the shared information.
One such tool was a moving notepad, realised here as a prototype.