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Monday essay: Getting the message

A NEW version of a classic railway alphabet first seen in 1965 has been unveiled. Rail Alphabet was a key part of modernising British Rail’s corporate identity in the days of Beeching, and its effects eventually reached every part of the country. Sim Harris considers the prospects for Rail Alphabet 2.

A CORPORATE identity is often seen to make a vital contribution to the impression given by an industry – or a brand.

But the railways did not always care about such things. 

The real trade marks were their locomotives, whether they were the magnificent broad gauge creations of Daniel Gooch on the GWR or Patrick Stirling’s elegant ‘Singles’ on the Great Northern. Lettering took second place, although the GWR selected a form of lettering known as ‘Egyptian’ for its locomotive names in the 1830s and kept it right through to nationalisation more than a century later.

It was not until the 1923 Grouping, which created four large companies by amalgating more than 120 smaller ones, that the companies seemed to really care about their broader ‘look and feel’ for the first time.

With the arrival of nationalised British Railways there was finally a standard (if basic) railway identity which covered the country.

Until the 1960s, the general view among British designers had been that capitals were better for ‘display’ purposes (in other words, for signs), but there were second thoughts after the organisers of various trials declared that lower case was easier to read, because the shapes of the words made them more readable.

Road signs for the Preston Bypass – the first section of true motorway – in 1959 accordingly used lower case letters for the first time on a British road, and the die was cast.

The designs for the Preston Bypass signs were produced by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, and were seen to be a success. Capitals were left on the back seat, as one organisation after another took the lower case route. London Transport introduced them on its bus indicators in 1961, and five years later it was announced that the Preston experiment, which had used a newly-drawn alphabet called ‘Transport’, would be the foundation not just for motorways but for all the nation’s traffic signs in future.

British Railways was not far behind. Some trials with the new ‘Transport’ alphabet were carried out at Coventry station, and these were followed by an exhibition in London’s Design Centre at the start of 1965, where the British Railways Board (still led at this time by Dr Beeching) unveiled its ‘new look’ railway. 

A new, but as it would turn out iconic, double arrow symbol and the brand name ‘British Rail’ were at the heart of the revolution, along with a new ‘Rail Alphabet’ produced once again by Kinneir and Calvert. 

It took time. Although timetable leaflets and uniforms could be updated quite quickly, the hardware was another matter. The last of the old signs based on the 1949 designs did not disappear from stations until the early 1980s – and by then a new set of changes were on the horizon.

The British Railways Board had decided on a radical restructuring, which would see the abolition of the geographical regions and their replacement by a series of sectors (later these were dubbed ‘businesses’), each with their own particular function.

As the sectors gained authority, time began to run out for the 1965 national corporate identity. Each sector wanted its own image.

By 1990 the sectors – now businesses – ruled. The regions faded away, and so did the national corporate identity. But the businesses would not survive for too long, either.

Privatisation had many effects, but as it created 25 passenger franchises between 1995 and 1996 it also created numerous corporate identities. 

The Railway Group Standard for station signs was unhelpful, effectively saying little more than ‘there will be signs’. So the new franchise-holders enjoyed themselves, often echoing the graphic styles of their owning groups. Many stayed with Rail Alphabet for a while, but others experimented with new styles of lettering and novel colours. The comprehensive railway had disappeared.

There were two important developments as the 1990s ended, however. One involved the Association of Train Operating Companies, which in 2000 cautiously readmitted British Rail’s double-arrow symbol as part of a new concept, dubbed ‘National Rail’ – known rather mysteriously as ‘the descriptor’.

Just before this, Railtrack had taken a different line, as you might say, by unveiling new lettering to be known as ‘Brunel’, which was to be used at Railtrack-managed stations.

Apart from Brunel and ATOC’s ‘descriptor’ (‘not a brand or identity’) there was precious little else to bring the railway back together in the eyes of the public as the new millennium got under way.

Franchises went, and were replaced by other franchises. Railtrack itself collapsed in 2001, and was replaced by Network Rail a year later.

In many cases, franchise-holders continued to abandon Rail Alphabet in favour of their own corporate styles.

Little had changed by November 2009, when an independent report by Chris Green and Professor Sir Peter Hall called Better Stations was published. This included the telling phrase: ‘To ensure network consistency and reduced franchise costs, all signage should be in standard “Brunel” script with white letters on a dark blue background. Thereafter, name signs should not be changed when train company ownership changes.’

It was a good idea. It has been adopted in Scotland (although the lettering used on ScotRail is not Brunel), but not in England, where until now franchise-holders have continued to make their own decisions.

We now come up to date, with the unveiling of Rail Alphabet 2 by Margaret Calvert – the same designer who worked on the first Rail Alphabet and also the Transport lettering for road signs.

She says: ‘It’s been wonderful for me to have been given a chance to revisit the original Rail Alphabet, designed by me in the Sixties, as a starting point for the design of Rail Alphabet 2 for Network Rail, which will be used for both wayfinding, and as a text face for specific publications.’

But how much will it be used? Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy: ‘There’s a muddle of different fonts used on railway signage which are hard to read and confusing for passengers, so we were keen to work on a clean and consistent design to make journeys and stations better.’

He is right about the muddle, and yes, it is confusing. Will Rail Alphabet cure these problems?

Maybe not. Network Rail says Rail Alphabet 2 will be ‘used in design publications and eventually sign all Network Rail managed stations’.

But they comprise fewer than 1 per cent of all the stations on the network. As franchises end, there is surely room now for a more general approach.

The first station to get the new lettering will be London Paddington.

Then we will see.

The next print edition of Railnews, RN285, will be published on 5 November. The new edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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