Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Posterior numbness. What can we do about it?

My two weeks off now seem a distant memory. It didn’t take long to fall back into the habit of the daily commute to and from the office. However it is the small things that you notice after any time away from the usual routine, and I found reacquainting myself with the seats on the new trains here an unpleasant experience. Melbourne’s suburban train fleet is an interesting collection of train types. The most recent additions date from 2002 to the present and these are clean (as clean as you can keep public transport) well air-conditioned and quiet. Then there are the old refurbished trains that date from the early 1980’s these were refurbished about five years ago, but are still leave a little to be desired. The third type is the oldest, dating from the 1970’s – these are not air-conditioned (they have windows that passengers can actually open, unlike the other types), they are exceptionally noisy and smell like the inside of a kennel that houses a particularly aromatic dog. However, whilst most aspects of passenger’s comfort has improved with each generation of train, the quality of seating has taken a drastic step backwards. The powers that dictate the choice of new train have gone with seats that have become less and less padded. The oldest trains have relatively luxuriously padded and contoured foam cushioning to ease the journey of all but the widest or most fatigued of rears, not even the faded and ripped tartan fabric design cannot detract from the relative softness of the seat compared to the new models – it’s just a shame about the rest of the train.

Prior to their refit the early 80’s trains had cushioning levels of not much below that of their predecessors – but after the refit for some reason the seats were given cushioning of less than half the depth of the previous cushioning.

Then three years ago two new types of train were introduced (only one of which I catch as the other isn’t used on my line) and the bottoms of Melbourne were introduced to a whole new level of posterior discomfort. No doubt chosen due to financial dictates, the padding for these seats would make a slab of marble seem like a preferable option for the passenger (I have actually seen a bottom weary traveler slip their very own marble slab on top of the ‘cushioning’ in an effort to improve the discomfort of the trip). At the end of every trip I am often on the verge of requiring medical attention. I find vigorous thigh massage helps, especially when done in conjunction with squats and stamping of the feet (all of which encourages improved blood flow to the near necrotic tissues of the legs).

At least the leg room has not been whittled away over the years as has the cushioning levels. I am able to report that the legroom available to the traveler today remains as it was when initial measurements for passenger leg space were taken in 1854, when the average traveler was five foot five and malnourished. Now of course this is woefully inadequate, requiring persons sitting opposite one another to intertwine their legs and knees in such away that doesn’t allow a quick exit from the carriage in event of an evacuation (or if the traveler has slept up to their stop and only realizes he or she has to get off as the doors begin to close). I have observed some particularly nasty (if amusing) scenes due to the dangerously high levels of leg entanglement when this happens.

The worst experience though was had by me this morning. I had the misfortune to travel briefly between city stations on the new type of train that doesn’t travel on my line. I boarded and observed the differences between the carriages - especially the relative variance of the foam padding on the seats. Instead of foam this seat design appeared to simply use fabric over the hard plastic itself. I sat down to see what it felt like and it realised the designers had indeed decided to do away altogether with the foam cushioning and feel the fabric itself afforded the required cushioning for the traveller. Suddenly I realized my 6mm of foam cushioning was not that bad at all…

Well I guess foam is expensive these days, especially when examined in relation to the manufacturing cost of a train.