Are railway identities back on the right tracks?

Clare Dowdy examines the crowded industry of rail identity design. Several companies are on their second post-privatisation identity already. Additional research by Natalie Spencer

Whatever your feelings on British Rail’s service, its identities were just like old friends. There were only three regional line brands, Regional Railways, Network SouthEast and InterCity, designed by the then Lloyd Northover, CGI, and Newell and Sorrell respectively.

Under this structure, a collection of sub-brands developed, initially as a way of inspiring staff loyalty. These sub-brands “ran away with themselves and became customer facing”, says Martyn Cornwall, who acted as a brand manager for British Rail. He now operates as Martyn Cornwall Design and has advised a number of franchises on their identities.

The sector is action-packed at the moment as orders for new rolling stock start to be delivered. For many operators part of their franchise deal was to introduce new trains. Painting trains is a very pricey business and many operators with new branding are yet to apply it inside carriages or even externally.

And those which have changed are not necessarily happy with their first post-privatisation effort at branding. Chiltern Railways is currently rolling out a new identity by Midlands group Cre’active Designs, having already introduced one identity.

And South West Trains, which introduced a tweaked version of Four IV’s 1994 logo earlier this year, is talking to an unnamed consultancy about a new livery. Others, like Gatwick Express are on line for a name change.

Some cautious operators are waiting to see what their competitors’ actions are before they commit to what is inevitably an expensive exercise.

With all these different holding companies operating in the rail sector for the first time, different branding solutions are going to develop. Some may call them disparate. This is unavoidable as there is no longer an overseer of the rail brand, as there was pre-privatisation. And the quality of solutions is also mixed.

“Some have a great deal of substance and will stand the test of time,” says Cornwall, whereas others “have been put together rather quickly”.

Knowingly or not, some lines seem to have adopted the same or similar colours. Any conscious effort may be an attempt to create synergy along the same route, in order to compete collectively against cars and coaches.

This sense of greater competition will probably mean that identities are refreshed more frequently. BR, on the other hand, could be accused of allowing its branding to become a little tired or dated.

Indeed, Cornwall believes there is more design awareness among the new owners. “I think a lot of them are far more retail oriented,” he says.

So now that identities are more or less under control, it’s time for more operators to take their retail environments in hand and do something about their ticketing and station interiors.

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