Rail sell-off leaves design with second class status

The Government’s passenger rail privatisation scheme is gathering pace, but a number of new owners are leaving branding in the sidings for the time being, reports Clare Dowdy

The Government’s controversial rail franchising programme is now gathering steam and the repercussions for existing and future branding of trains, stations, signage, uniforms, general communications and the companies themselves are being felt within the design industry. But what should have been another boom for design could end up as a damp squib, not just in terms of the quantity of projects but also the quality.

Some 25 regional passenger train operations are up for grabs, several of which have already changed hands, and the Government is expected to rush through the remaining tenders before the next General Election.

This spells the demise of some well-known identities and the potential for some fresh looks as new owners consider how best to promote their recent acquisitions.

But while some of the new operators are aware of the value of design, others are cautious about rebranding.

Not every parent company is hurrying to get away from the BR look. Stagecoach won the seven-year franchise for South West Trains in February and is still assessing the best way to incorporate itself as the new owner into the existing rail identity.

“We are getting the basics right before we start worrying about branding,” says a South West Trains spokesman, who adds that “people should not expect glorious technicolour stations”.

And the Great Western line is set to retain its existing marque, launched with a logo by Roundel in 1994 in anticipation of privatisation. The managers bought out the company and are keeping Roundel’s design, although consultancy managing director Mike Denny feels the in-house implementation “has had mixed results”.

Other owners are biding their time before they take any rebranding steps. Network South Central was formerly part of BR’s Network South East before it was bought by London & South Coast Ltd, a subsidiary of CGEA Group. The company has brought in CGI to review corporate identity issues and currently operates the South London Metro, a sub-brand which was launched on 2 June with a logo devised in-house.

More optimistically, some companies are rebranding. National Express Group, Prism Rail, M40 Trains, US-owned Sea Containers and French-based CGEA Group have all picked up former British Rail operations, and all are carrying out some form of rebranding exercise for their purchases.

National Express-owned Midland Main Line is going through the rebranding motions only 11 weeks after franchise operations commenced, with the appointment of Saatchi & Saatchi Design.

But overseas buyers will not necessarily appoint UK consultancies. Sea Containers, the new holding group of the York line, InterCity East Coast, commissioned US identity designer Massimo Vignelli in April. The identity is set to appear this autumn.

Designers are dubious about the quality of design work likely to come out of the privatisation. Denny, who has seen Roundel’s identity work for newly merged freight business English Welsh & Scottish Railway scrapped in favour of a design conjured up by a rail enthusiast, expects “some good and some bad” logos.

David Hudson-Charlton, partner at Sheard & Hudson, which has worked on several rail logos, also expects a mixed bag: “It’s down to the companies and their marketing budget… you see some horrendous identities coming off the production line.”

With only a handful of lines making profit under BR, it is understandable that some operators are reticent about splashing out on a pricey branding exercise.

Meanwhile, the next batch of franchises are on track and the same acquisitive conglomerates are likely to be in the running.

Inconsistent approaches to identity by operators point to an old problem – the lack of awareness of the importance of design. New branding could actually make the unpopular privatisation programme more palatable to consumers.

While we wait for the first logos, it’s worth bearing in mind that the image could be almost as important as the service.

Franchises have been awarded for:

South West Trains to Stagecoach Holdings. Operations began on 4 February.

Great Western to Great Western Holdings. Operations began on 4 February.

LTS Rail to Prism Rail. Operations began on 26 May.

InterCity East Coast to GNR, a subsidiary of Sea Containers. Operations began on 28 April.

Midland Main Line to National Express Group. Operations began on 28 April.

Gatwick Express to National Express Group. Operations began on 28 April.

Network SouthCentral to London & South Coast Ltd, a subsidiary of French-based CGEA Group.

Chiltern awarded on 25 July to M40 Trains.

Tenders have been issued for:

South Eastern. Final bids by 17 April.

South Wales and West.

Indicative bids by 6 June.

Cardiff Railway.

Thames.

Next batch up for tender:

Anglia

ScotRail

Island Line

CrossCountry

Great Eastern

West Anglia Great Northern

Thameslink

Mersey Rail

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