Not a Tall Order

Growing numbers of men are over six foot and have to endure painfully small train seats. The modernisers of our railways must heed their cries

Counterpoints Health Modern Life Transport

The government’s recent announcement that 1,000 new UK-built railway carriages will enter service by 2014 is cause for celebration. But can I make a heartfelt – or rather back-felt – plea to their designers to spare a thought and a couple of extra inches for the ever-growing number of us who are over six foot two – the qualification mark for men to join the international Tall Club?

I have just returned to London from two trips up north. The first was to Penrith on one of the Virgin’s new Pendolino trains. It was almost full in standard class. I manoeuvred my six foot four frame into my allotted place. By pressing the small of my back firmly into the seat, I could just about accommodate my knees without sitting like John Wayne on a horse. But then I wanted to use my laptop-part of the joy, allegedly, of travel by train rather than car. They even supply plug sockets.

But such was the angle of the seat in front of me that once I had opened the drop-down table top and put my computer on it, I couldn’t raise the screen at any sort of angle that would enable me to read it without a periscope. Unless, that is, I lodged the keyboard firmly somewhere between my pancreas and kidneys. The next three hours made me empathise for the first time with battery hens.

My second journey brought me back from Thirsk in Yorkshire, courtesy of the new franchise-holder between London and Teesside, Grand Central Railways. This charming but slightly threadbare operation uses 1970s’ British Rail rolling stock. They have tarted them up with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and dressed their staff in retro uniforms, but done nothing to the seats. For which, thank God. They are wide, deep and offer so much legroom that even the lanky footballer Peter Crouch could practise his ball control under the table without disturbing the passengers facing him.

So in “modernising” our railways to cope efficiently with the needs of the 21st century, we have ignored the needs of that expanding percentage of the 21st-century male population that is over six foot tall. Average male height currently stands at five foot ten and goes up, academics calculate, by three-quarters of an inch each generation as a result of changing diet. The government’s own health of the nation survey shows that 30 per cent of men under 25 are now over six foot tall.

So why are basic train seats (and, I might add, plane seats and even car seats) getting smaller not bigger? There must be something in the Human Rights Act about torturing those of us who, through no fault of our own, have long frames. I am going to start campaigning for the right to demand a free upgrade to first-class for those over a certain height.

Tony Blair promised us joined-up government. If the Department of Transport, which pours millions of taxpayers’ money into subsidising the railways, had insisted that carriage layout recognised the needs of tall people, then the Department of Health wouldn’t find itself picking up the tab for treating them afterwards. Now I’m off to the physiotherapist to ease my painful back.