Now internal documents released under freedom of information laws show why the state's lead transport agency chose fixed seats for the new intercity trains despite its own research revealing “a strong customer appeal and usage of reversible seating” and a perception that fixed seating was a “backward step”.
While passengers had a “general preference for flip seats”, a “sensitive” briefing document for Transport Minister Andrew Constance several months before he awarded the contract for the new trains in 2016 said there “is no proven design solution that meets safety requirements”.
And that lack of design would place the timeline for the delivery of the new trains “at risk”.
The two-by-two fixed seats to be installed in the 512 double-deck carriages being manufactured in South Korea mean about half of passengers will be facing backwards when they travel on them.
A technical paper for the agency said reversible seats were popular among passengers but found them to be more complex, heavier and requiring greater maintenance than fixed seats.
Flip seats were also more susceptible to damage and vandalism due to their moving parts, and posed a greater fire risk because they comprised more combustible materials.
The documents show the overseas manufacturers bidding for the intercity train contract believed it would increase the cost of seating in the new carriages and reduce their seating capacity, resulting in more passengers standing.
In recommending fixed seats be installed, transport officials warned that “careful consideration must be given” to the communication strategy for the arrival of the new trains to “ensure customer expectations are managed, given the strength of preference for reversible seating”.
As it turned out, the government highlighted how the ‘‘trains will be more spacious, more comfortable and have features never before seen on our long-distance services’’ when it awarded the $2.3 billion contract to a UGL-led consortium in August 2016.
Kevin Eadie, from community group Action for Public Transport, said fixed seating had been installed in trains such as the XPTs and Endeavours before transport officials bowed to pressure and installed reversible seats on them.
‘‘Reversible seating would be dearer but the question is whether Transport for NSW is interested in providing what people in NSW want,’’ he said.
And Mr Eadie, who used freedom of information laws to gain access to the documents, said the decision could prove more costly in the long term if the fixed seats in the new intercity carriages were later replaced by reversible ones favoured by the state's train passengers.
While the final layout was still subject to detailed design work, Transport for NSW said it would be similar to the state's Tangara trains which had half the seats facing in one direction and the rest in the other. Two sets of seats would also be placed at either end of each carriage which would allow passengers travelling in groups to face each other.
The transport agency said the new intercity trains had been designed with passenger comfort in mind.
“We've asked customers what they value and incorporated much of this feedback into the design, including two-by-two seating with wider seats, arm rests and wider aisles, as well as amenities like tray tables and charging outlets for mobile devices,” a spokesman said.
But Labor's transport spokeswoman, Jodi McKay, said travelling backwards was “just not an option” for passengers who suffered motion sickness.
“The journey for some intercity passengers can be up to three hours – that’s a long time to sit backwards or be forced to stand,’’ she said. “These documents reveal that the government knows this will be an issue, but it’s going ahead with it anyway.”
Flip seats are commonplace on NSW's double-deck trains such as the Waratah and V-Sets. But NSW stands in contrast to railways in other parts of the world such as Europe, North America and Japan where fixed seating on trains is the norm.
The first of the new trains will begin services late next year to the Central Coast and Newcastle. The government expects the new trains to begin running on the Blue Mountains Line to Mount Victoria in mid-2020, followed by Lithgow about four months later. After that, the trains will start carrying passengers on the South Coast Line to Wollongong and Kiama.