Reinventing the train toilet

TU Delft researcher Marian Loth is inspired by a curious line from a book called The Big Necessity: "To be uninterested in the public toilet is to be uninterested in life."

About to complete her PhD at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, Loth has spent a decade researching hygiene issues around public toilets. Her aim is to solve these problems by creating better, user-centred designs.

On August 30, 2016, the Dutch railway service NS, introduced Loth's toilet design in the model of their new trains. Designed as family toilets – these toilets have pots and urinals, and the urinals are designed to facilitate better aim by men. There are also extra handles to hold on to and a wheelchair friendly layout.

When Loth and her daily supervisor, Dr. Johan Molenbroek, approached the NS in 2007, toilets had just been discontinued on the short-distance trains. "We were at the right place at the right time," she said. "My PhD research showed the NS that more people would use trains if they had access to clean toilets and they decided to come on board."

Studying the causes for unclean train toilets, she found that spillage while urinating is fairly common. "One interviewee, a blind man, said that 9 out of 10 times men spill while peeing on a moving train," she said. Distance is a critical factor, she explained. "Firstly, people distance themselves from public toilets and don't clean up after themselves, the distance between other users and toilets gives people a certain anonymity that diminishes any sense of responsibility. Secondly, the physical distance between pot/seats and the body is too large."

Research on possible solutions included an investigation of spray patterns on urinals, a Toilet Lab, see-through doors and a number of conversations about toilet habits. Was it difficult to get people to talk about something so intimate? "Honestly, no," said Loth. "Most people understand how important a hygienic public toilet is and were willing to do their part to help."

This is not Loth‘s first research on toilets. In 1999 she designed a female urinal called lady p. which would allow women to take a leak while hovering. While the product didn’t take off, Loth was more convinced than ever that public toilets needed critical re-thinking.

Her pursuit has even earned her the nickname Toiletjuffrouw, referring to women who clean public toilets. Not too excited about it initially, she later came to embrace it. "Why not? In a way, that‘s what I am doing too. That's the problem," she said, "a toilet touches our lives, but we don’t want to touch it or talk about it."

There is a version of this article in Dutch.