A logo for all times

The truly successful designs don’t go away easily. Hugh Pearman marvels at the old British Rail logo, which is getting yet another lease of life

Some logos are so strong, they just refuse to die. Back in the mid-1990s, I found myself writing the obituary for the familiar twin-arrow British Rail logo, introduced in 1964. This was surely a perfect branding exercise. I don’t know what its public-recognition factor was, but I’d say close on 100 per cent. Such a shame then, I wrote, that it had not survived the break-up and privatisation of Britain’s rail network.

I received one small letter of protest from someone deep in the shell-shocked railway industry. ‘Aha,’ he said, ‘You’re wrong. The logo is not dead. It is used as the symbol of Regional Railways.’ He was right. The Government had not quite managed to hive off this unprofitable side of the business. It soon did. My obituary had been slightly premature, that was all.

Railtrack did not use the logo. Its successor, Network Rail, does not. The Strategic Rail Authority does not. The individual train companies all have their own marks. Nobody wanted to be associated with nationalised curly sandwiches.

The only consolation was that people are very bad at replacing old signage. The old logo lingered on, slowly becoming rare, as cheapskate operators slapped their own identities over the top. But it never went away – and now it is making a strong return.

My local rail service used to be British Rail. Then it became a BR sub-brand called Great Northern Electrics. Then it became West Anglia Great Northern. Now it has become First Capital Connect. Throughout all this, the trains have remained the same, their age disguised by successive coats of paint. A point came when the BR logo was just a fond memory, but a wonderful thing has happened – the device is reappearing.

The Association of Train Operating Companies has noticed that there is a case to be made for a symbol that just means ‘railway’, and they found they could not do better than the old BR logo. So they have brought it back. Not for their own mark, mind you, but as a generic thing, a handy overlay.

This is a triumph for the golden age of British public sector transport design. The BR logo was devised by Gerald Barney of the Design Research Unit, as part of an identity programme for BR, also involving David Mellor and graphics specialists Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert.

The Kinneir/Calvert motorway and airport signage systems are justly celebrated, but they were never under threat of extinction. Now I see new signs appearing around the network, proudly displaying the old BR logo, as fresh as ever.

A design has got to be unbelievably good to resurrect itself like that. The BR logo is admirably descriptive. While being abstract, it also suggests the thing it represents – both vehicles and infrastructure, trains and track, going this way and that. It does this with clarity and vigour, suggesting strength, stability and purpose.

I’m trying to think of another instance of corporate branding that does so many things so effortlessly. Even the London Transport roundel is slightly obscure in comparison. NatWest’s triangle, while distinctive, carries no such layers of meaning. The interlinked Rs of Rolls-Royce, reassuringly glimpsed on many a jet engine nacelle, come close because of the personal history they embody.

But the BR mark – now the National Rail mark – does more. It is possible that this design will turn out to be immortal. And I hope I’m not wrong this time.

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