Virgin Trains improvements #1

Anybody who has ever used Virgin Train’s West Coast knows that there are a range of little problems that plague what would otherwise be a perfectly adequate service. So I thought I’d have a moan about them. Then I thought I might actually try and do something about them.

The first is the all-time classic – the confusing toilet door controls.

If you’ve been on one of their Pendolinos, you can’t fail to have heard the ‘Doo Da, Doo Da, Doo Da’ alert, perhaps several times throughout their journey, and wondered what it is and why it goes off so much.

Well what it is is the alarm button in the toilet being pressed. But surely people can’t be alarmed that often (even though it does often smell quite bad!). Instead, I think it’s caused by poor usability. The whole scheme for operating the toilet door is poor.

The toilets have a motorised sliding door. There’s one button to open the door from outside. Inside there is a panel with three buttons – one to shut the door, one to lock the door, and a third to unlock-and-open the door. Next to it is another panel with an emergency alarm button.


The problem seems to be that lots of people mistake the ’emergency call for aid’ button for the ‘door unlock and open’ button. Perhaps they can’t read, or can’t be bothered. Perhaps it’s because it’s big and nearest the door. So I think they press this button, and then the alarm sounds until the train manager turns it off, which  is annoying for other passengers. I imagine it also has a ‘little boy who cried wolf’ effects, lessening the impact when somebody really needs to use the alarm.

The usability issues would seem to be:

  • Inconsistency. Why separate buttons to close and lock, but only one button to unlock-and-open? Why not a open/shut button and a lock/unlock button?
  • Usefulness: Why would anyone want to close the door but not lock it?

These issue also lead to a secondary, and more embarrassing problem. A couple of times I’ve approached a toilet where the ‘occupied’ sign was not illuminated and nobody waiting, pushed the ‘door open’ button, and found a woman sat on the toilet. The speed with which the door opens and then shuts again seems excruciatingly slow in that circumstance!

So those are the moans, but what’s the solution? I’m quite sure Virgin Trains think they’ve got bigger problems. The ultimate solution is an engineering one – replacing the control system with a more intuitive one – which they’ll never make a business case for. (I suspect the problem was an engineering one too – I bet Alstom who build the Pendalino had an engineer design the toilet door control system without the involvement of a designer.)

In the meantime, I’m thinking of taking some direct action, making these stickers to try and help people out.


I know this is probably a bit extreme, but I get Virgin Trains from Manchester to London at least twice a week, and these little things become very important. I bet if I did do it, they’d track me down from this post and find the time to prosecute me for criminal damage…


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