Why, oh why, does our rail franchisees insist on liveries inspired by 1990s football strips?

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Dignified: the BR Rail Blue scheme seen on a Class 304 bound for Stoke-on-Trent in 1992. Photograph by Hugh Llewellyn (Creative Commons License – Attribution-Share Alike).

Call me old (well, I’m almost 37 years old for goodness sake anyway), but I hanker for the smooth, smart, yet strikingly modern liveries of the British Rail era. I hanker for their discipline and adherence to the Rail Alphabet typeface, and other wonders from the Design Research Unit. I miss seeing the yellow text on red signage of the BR Travellers’ Fare outlets and the design language, used on all railway stations from Abererch to Yeovil Pen Mill.

Thanks to the superb Double Arrow website (a near-complete archive of the Design Research Unit’s British Rail graphics manual), what would be a symbol for (arguments sake) a waiting room would be the same all over the National Rail network. Though the same pictograms would be used, the standard is diluted from a typographic angle. Franchisees may insist on eschewing the Rail Alphabet for other sans-serif typefaces, like Frutiger or GillSans.

The non-standard use of typefaces bugs me to the nth degree on our railways. Firstly, there has been nothing in the news about Highways Scotland sticking with Jock Kinneir’s and Margaret Calvert’s Transport typeface, because the English used an EVEL vote to get its road signs back to the pre-Worboys Committee era. Secondly, why have different signs for different franchisees? It undermines the ‘brand’ of National Rail, even more so when there is three standard ticketing types and whatever extra offers the franchisee or open access operator promotes.

The Disunited Colours of Bebington

Though rail privatisation have brought us weird and wonderful colour schemes, there is something missing, big style. Continuity. 1965’s introduction of the standard Rail Blue gave the look of a proper nationwide rail network. It was improved upon by the early 1980s, when suburban trains – wisely – had light grey around the windows and the BR Rail Blue below (in line with InterCity trains). Needless to say, the short-lived blue stripe Suburban livery was good, but the amount of grey didn’t allow for the grime of day-to-day operations.

It is fair to say we had reached peak-BR livery stage in 1988. The apogee of which being the InterCity Swallow livery, which represented BR’s first real deviation from Rail Alphabet. Plus the later variations of the Parcels Sector liveries, opting for red and gold instead of Rail Blue. During the first Robert Reid era of British Rail (Basil; Bob followed in 1990), we were gifted a number of liveries. Those of Network SouthEast (the red, white and blue of Chris Green’s era, replacing the London and South East ‘Jaffa Cake’ livery). The Passenger Transport Executive’s liveries as well as the standard Provincial Sector liveries.

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Familiar to Millions: the BR Provincial Sector SuperSprinter livery seen on a Class 156 in Bristol Temple Meads in 1989. Image by Hugh Llewellyn (Creative Commons License – Attribution-Share Alike)

Amid the plethora of colour schemes, not a single one had a whiff of 1990s football strip. If anything, the first livery of the High Speed Train was more akin to the red-blue diagonal Crystal Palace strip of Malcolm Allison’s era. The GMPTE and Strathclyde liveries, akin to the Manchester United V-necked strip of 1985 with the badge at the centre. If we were to compare late 1980s BR liveries with football strips, more akin to 1984 designs. BR’s equivalent to Coventry City’s brown away strip? The London and South East livery that predated its superior successor.

Then came rail privatisation. Which, funnily enough, occurred at the same time as BSkyB’s revolutionary Premier League coverage/money grubbing scheme. This led to a spate of similarly lurid liveries. Though a break with previous designs, the gold stars and dark blue of (pre-FirstGroup era) North Western Trains was contemporary without being lurid. In other words, rail’s answer to the 1992-93 azure blue away kit of Manchester United’s: contemporary yet sensible.

Some of the early privatisation liveries were good, but there was some which – to say the least – were a dog’s breakfast. WAGN’s for example, was nearly all white with bits of black, red and blue. The original First Great Eastern livery, functional, yet ruined by the italicised ‘f’ near the driver’s entrance. Midland Mainline’s teal and tangerine was good, but aged a little towards the end of National Express’ term.

The Great Western Trains livery had a touch of class, though seemed a little bland. FirstGroup’s pre-Barbie version – with the ‘so-1990s’ fades, looked pretty decent. It is better than the revisionist GWR livery.

The best privatisation-era livery for my money was the dark blue and orange stripe of Great North Eastern Railway. Their Class 91s, the solitary Class 89, and Mark 4 carriages – dare I say it – looked better in GNER livery than the previous InterCity one. Even now, it stands the test of time better than the National Express East Coast and it annihilates the Virgin East Coast one of present.

I could go one about each livery in an individual form (though I shall leave this open for a future East of the M60 post – perhaps a Not So Perfect Ten listicle). In brief, it is worth mentioning:

  • The giant ‘N’ of Northern Spirit’s liveries (one for Trans-Pennine Express services and another for local services): pretty decent liveries, though the local services livery had hideous colour clashing;
  • The swirly Scotrail livery: great colours, but the swirls ruined their continuity;
  • The kaleidoscopic One Railway livery: as seen on Anglia Railways services to London Liverpool Street from Norwich Thorpe station;
  • Northern Rail’s purple and blue: it didn’t do its ageing rolling stock much justice, nor its more modern trains. They should have ditched the swirls.

Haul of Confusion

158806 at Nottingham
Three companies’ identities and one disjointed livery: Look at 158806 (photographed at Nottingham station by Matthew Black in 2009): parts of the Northern Spirit Trans-Pennine livery, the Central Trains ‘C’ and the East Midlands Trains vinyls. Thankfully, the Stagecoach EMT livery is a vast improvement and looks good on the Class 158s. (Creative Commons License – Attribution-Share Alike).

This brings me onto my next pet peeve, and the 1993 Railways Act has a lot to answer for this! It is the fact that train liveries tend to change with each franchise holder. The franchise – say FirstGroup, Stagecoach or National Express – stamp their own corporate identity and choice of colours. Hence the pinks and blues of FirstGroup on their trains as well as their logo.

For anybody apart from the seasoned train traveller, it is a tad confusing to see a completely different livery among any two of the franchisee’s rolling stock. It was worse in 2004 when Serco had a number of different liveries to replace – PTEs and previous franchisees’ designs.

Furthermore, it also costs money, changing the livery with each term. It makes for a disjointed nature, though the same types of tickets and validity levels are available from Wick to Penzance. If it works on London’s buses, why not return to having liveries by sector – a la Robert Reid (Basil and Bob eras of the two former BR managers)? The franchisee’s logos could be changed over with ease thanks to vinyl graphics.

How about it next time? It doesn’t have to be the original BR colour schemes, though. London Midland’s livery could be a good template for (formerly) BR Provincial Sector services. If the livery was more akin to the sleekness of the 1971 Arsenal Home strip (instead of the skidmark-tastic yellow away strip from 1991), I’m all for that.

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Neat: the second GMPTE livery, and pretty slick it was too, seen at Buxton. Image by Phil Richards, 1993 (Creative Commons License – Attribution-Share Alike).

S.V., 05 April 2016.

2 thoughts on “How I Miss BR Rail Blue (and the use of Rail Alphabet on All Station Signs)

  1. Hello Stuart, on the subject of liveries, well bus liveries, your going to go spare when you hear who the new operator of the Glossop to Holmfirth 951 will be, Ladies Only Travel! Yes the company who have love hearts on the sides of their buses, pink ones too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Leeds.

      I have had a look at the livery and the hearts do not look too bad at all. Plus I think the Plaxton Primos would take to Holme Moss pretty well, though the ride may be pretty bracing!

      At first I thought the hearts would have been filled in red, which would have appealed to expat Frieslanders. (The flag has seven red hearts and blue/white diagonal stripes). Still to do some Primo action on that route, it’s a good excuse for calling in The Nook brewery tap or having a selfie next to the Holme Moss transmitter tower.

      Bye for now,



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