August 25th, 2015

Formed from the nationalisation of the ‘Big Four’ British railway companies in 1948, British Railways and from 1965 to 1997, British Rail, was arguably one of the most recognisable railway companies worldwide, perhaps surpassed only by the London Underground or ‘tube’ and New York’s Subway. By the early 1960s, British Railways was suffering severe, heavy losses, with both passenger and freight traffic in sharp decline. It was left to new chairman, Richard Beeching, to reverse the fortunes of the heavily failing organisation. He and the British Railways board were in agreement that a basic feature was lacking on the British rail network… a cohesive and universal house style.

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1964 saw the Design Research Unit (DRU) commissioned to turn the failings around and kickstart a new start for the nation’s railway industry. As one of the first generation of British design consultancies, combining expertise in graphic, architectural and industrial design, they were perfectly positioned to take up the challenge. The company name was refined to British Rail and DRU member, Gerry Barney, briefed to create something ‘timeless’, conceived what was to become a mark of British heritage and culture; the famous ‘Double-Arrow’. Creative Review voted it in the top 20 logos of all time back in 2011.

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This remarkable, robust and memorable mark has far outlasted British Rail itself, having been privatised once again in 1997. It continues to live on as the symbol for the national rail network in the UK; it’s used as part of the branding for ‘National Rail‘, on road signs and as the symbol for railway stations on that network. It is formed of two interlocking arrows, showing the direction of travel on a double track railway.

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A new corporate identity programme was launched in 1965 with an exhibition at the Design Council, London. It consisted of four basic elements: the new mark, the new British Rail logotype, a newly developed custom typeface aptly named ‘Rail Alphabet’ and finally the new house colourways. Some 750 copies of the new Corporate Identity Manual were rolled out across the company, dealing with all aspects of the application of the brands of British Rail and its subsidiaries.

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Rail Alphabet stands as a true icon of 20th century design. A bespoke sans serif developed in 1964 by Jock Kinnier and Margaret Calvert, it draws similarities to ‘Transport’, a face developed for the Ministry of Transport in 1958, by the same duo. However, as it was deemed that the typeface requirements for British Rail differed from that of the road network, a sans serif closer to the Helvetica model was needed. Thus, Rail Alphabet was born. Hailed as something of a triumph due to it’s incredible legibility, it has since been adopted by companies the world over, not necessarily in the rail industry. It has also been revived as New Rail Alphabet, under the watchful guidance of Calvert herself, by Henrik Kubel of A2/SW/HK.

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As mentioned earlier British Rail was privatised once again between 1994-1997. Today, the British Railway network operates under the ‘Association of Train Operating Companies’, whose trading name is ‘National Rail’. Since then, there has been no one single approach to design on the railways. Look-and-feel of signage, liveries and branding is largely the preserve of individual transport companies. However, National Rail has since continued to use Barney’s ‘Double-Arrow’, a testament to its timelessness and quality.

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‘British Rail Design’, written by James Cousins in 1986, gives an extensive insight into how British Rail’s brand identity worked across different areas of communication, from signage to liveries. Wallace Henning is one man lucky enough to own one of these wonderfully rare books. His Flickr set contains some insightful images of the book, which showcases the extensive work that was carefully undertaken to create such refined brand guidelines. Created by Nick Job, Double Arrow is an online showcase of British Rail Corporate Identity from 1965-1994.

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Although the organisation no longer remains, it is clear to see the lasting impact British Rail had upon not only the rail industry in the UK and world, but also the effect it had on design standards, then and now. The Design Research Unit created an identity known the world over and still remains as such to this day. It demonstrated how creating a unified and consistent brand identity creates not only a cohesive-look and-feel, but builds trust, loyalty and therefore satisfaction in those that use the service.

The best brands work to communicate as effectively as possible with their audience both externally and internally. The fact that British Rail communicated their message as clearly as possible with its users and improved the rail service nationwide during its time, we feel that it no doubt has a place among the greatest British brands.

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