Back to the future

The new Great British Railways should abolish the garish sweet shop designs of today’s trains and look to the glorious liveries of the past

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The greatest of all Great Western Railway locomotives were the King Class 4-6-0s. From 1927, and for more than 30 years, they headed principal express trains from Paddington to Bristol, Plymouth, South Wales and the West Midlands with power, precision and truly regal style.

In a livery of lined dark green with copper-capped chimneys, brass safety valve covers, and names emblazoned above their driving wheels, the Kings led long chocolate and cream-coloured trains through landscapes they enhanced in days of both private and public ownership. Together with their less powerful shed-mates — Castles, Halls, Granges and Manors — these puissant machines breathed “Great Western” with every beat of their crisp exhausts.

In the beginning, the Kings were to have been Cathedrals, an appropriate name for locomotives representing a concern that, incorporated in 1835 and engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was revered by many employees, passengers and most enthusiasts as something more akin to a religion than a mere railway. Its engineering was progressive, and yet its corporate identity (what today’s marketing jargoneers would call its “brand”) retained a gloriously ecclesiastical and slightly old-fashioned air throughout the railway’s life.

Sir William Stanier, a Great Western engineer who moved from Swindon to the LMS at Crewe and then to the chairmanship of Power Jets in the Second World War, was asked by Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis, a writer on railways, “whether there was some nameless cabal at Swindon which ruled the styling of a Great Western locomotive” from the latest 1940s designs back through the Edwardian Saints and Stars to engines of the 1880s designed by William Dean. Stanier smiled and exclaimed: “Dean? Gooch! [the GWR’s first locomotive engineer]. It was traditional.”

The new look was sung as if from the Great Western’s “Ancient and Modern” hymn book of design

The tradition lives on. In 2015, today’s Great Western Railway — an operation owned by the multi-national FirstGroup — adopted a handsome dark green livery, created by the design agency Pentagram, that reaches back to the Kings and, by association, all the way to Gooch and Brunel.

The new look was sung as if from the Great Western’s “Ancient and Modern” hymn book of design. In a privatised railway world of largely gimcrack style and branding, with all too many trains looking as if their design inspiration has been that of sports shoes or the packaging of sweets such as Refreshers, the Great Western re-introduced gravitas, continuity and regional sensibility to the way its trains looked.

This is something those in charge of the newly announced Great British Railways (GBR) should think about carefully as this new public body takes over the national railway infrastructure in 2023, its remit including corporate identity. While its name is, perhaps, rather too close to Little Britain’s Great British Air, the possibility of it exercising a civilising influence over the design of our trains is there. A national design standard and identity could yet be created that speak of the unity of the British railway network and its diversity in the same breath.

Something like this was achieved, if patchily, during the early days of British Railways, from 1948 to 1965, when its six regions adopted their own colours while crests, lettering and insignia — lions riding or holding wheels, Gill Sans, roses, thistles, oak leaves and leeks — were resolutely BR. In practice, this meant chocolate and cream coaches, rather than the BR standard maroon, on the Western Region, green coaches for the Southern and different coloured station nameplates, and other details, up and down the country.

By the 1960s, top level railway management had been converted to a new religion — modernisation. Out with the old, in with the new. Historic architecture, branch lines, steam locomotives and regional identities were lined up as if against a brutalist concrete wall and dispatched with. It must be said that in terms of corporate identity, the new look British Rail was — silly uniforms aside — convincing. Gerald Barney’s double arrow logo set a template for new railway logos worldwide, while in the dogmatic era of privatised railways, from 1997, it remains the graphic symbol by which we identify railway stations.

The double arrow was accompanied by crystal-clear new lettering — Rail Alphabet by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert — a Rail Blue livery for trains along with advertising and even architecture to match. A comprehensive corporate design manual created by the Design Research Unit evoked a new era of blue express trains streaking past traffic tailgating along motorways. This seemed perfectly real with the advent in 1977 of BR’s 125mph High Speed Trains with their smart blue, yellow and pearl grey livery and Kenneth Grange-assisted styling.

When in the mid-1980s, British Rail divided itself into business sectors including Inter-City, Network SouthEast and Railfreight, it commissioned inspired new design, under the aegis of its well-connected and energetic Design Director, Jane Priestman. Among the highlights were the critically acclaimed liveries of Railfreight locomotives, their triple grey bodywork offset with stylised and colourful heraldic shields evoking the haulage of petroleum, coal or construction materials. This was the work of the design agency Roundel and Mike Denny, its creative director.

By this time, BR’s image was far better than it was or has been portrayed since by zealous privateers and by those harking back to a mythical golden age of the railways as they had been between the two world wars, or in Edwardian days when spit-and-polish locomotives and trains plumed through landscapes innocent of the motor car like so many Sir Galahads galloping as if from the stanzas of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot.

Whatever the shortcomings of British Rail, its engineering and corporate image was often first class

Whatever the shortcomings of British Rail, an organisation batted to and fro like a tennis ball in the ever-uncertain courts of Westminster and Whitehall, its engineering and corporate image was often first class, while from 1977 its Prue Leith sandwiches served in boxes neither curled nor flopped.

The bodged privatisation of British Rail has, however, reintroduced the idea of trains and railways with regional and local identities, even if their contracted operating companies are, to an extraordinary degree, owned by European and other state railways hiding behind garish liveries and obscurantist names like Abellio, One, Arriva, Avanti and c2c (“the name doesn’t mean anything specific” says the operator’s website).

Farmed out to design agencies for whom, it seemed, a train was little more than an elongated cereal packet on wheels, or perhaps a motorway coach on rails or even a wingless package-holiday jet, privatised colour schemes have been, to say the least, a hit and miss affair.

Before it employed Pentagram, a design studio that came up with the radical idea that a train ought to look like a train, First Great Western offered a lurid blue livery offset by coloured wavy stripes adopted either from a heart monitor or a tv screen having a digital fit. A second First Great Western colour scheme — green and grey with a gold band and all very 1970s — was known by railway enthusiasts as the ‘Fag Packet’ livery.

These liveries, however, were far from being the worst of a motley crew. What about Silverlink with its purple, green and white trains or East Midlands’s teal and grey with orange go-faster stripes or One (one what? — for Stephenson’s sake!) with its comic book graphics, unsettling shade of mauvish-blue and sweet wrapper stripes here and there along the sides of its trains?

When brand new, British Railways nearly made the same mistake. After the grimness of the war years, members of the new Railway Executive thought that BR locomotives should be painted in bright picture book colours. A number of ex-LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0s was lined up at Marylebone, the perfectly handsome engines garbed in the railway equivalent of children’s pyjamas. Pale green. Pale blue.

GBR will need to help its designers think of trains as trains once more

No one was sure quite what to say until another of this class of successful and much liked engines steamed into view. It was turned out in immaculately polished and lined-out London & North Western Railway black. The choice had been “Robin” Riddles, an ex-LNWR apprentice and, later, assistant to William Stanier on the LMS and now the Railway Executive member for mechanical and electrical engineering. “Riddles, you bastard!” someone was heard to hiss. The locomotive, dressed by an engineer, looked exactly right and everyone at Marylebone that day knew it.

While black is not the right colour for today’s anguilliform electric trains, Riddles knew instinctively how a certain locomotive should look. GBR will need to help its designers think of trains as trains once more.

It also might do best if it chooses to see trains and railways as a whole — their engineering, overhead catenary, stations, catering, publications — connecting tradition with modernity and a sensitivity to landscape and place with forward looking design.

As with GWR’s handsome new look, it should aim high: treating our railways as a serious, intelligent concern while fighting for the reopening of abandoned lines, building new ones and encouraging private initiative whether re-staffing stations or offering new ideas in engineering, service and design.

We may not quite recreate the spirit of the Great Western of yore, but from 2023 we can at least pray that the shopping mall, bus company, third-rate computer graphics-style world of our trains and railways of the past quarter of a century will lead on — whatever the (tricky) politics and (difficult) finances — to a more enduring and grown-up national network, an all embracing forward-looking concern alert to regional identities and tradition as indeed BR had tried to be before, in the 1990s, our national railways went pick’n’mix coloured and pear-drop shaped.

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