British Rail’s corporate identity, 50 years on

I’ve been thinking about corporate identity recently, following PayPal’s brand identity refresh. (Every organisation needs to update its look every now and again.) It’s exactly 50 years since the conception of one of Britain’s most far reaching and longest lasting brand identities: British Rail.

The new face of British Rail

The new face of British Rail

Back in 1964, Britain’s railways were changing. The traditional steam railway was being replaced by a new age of diesel and electric trains. British Railways wanted to create a clean, consistent, modern identity across its trains, stations and even ships. The new identity still looks modern half a century later, and the famous BR symbol is still with us almost 20 years after BR itself disappeared. (You don’t hear it called the arrow of indecision these days.)

Southern Railway S15 Barry scrapyard

Southern Railway and BR identities, Barry scrapyard 1982

The new BR identity scrapped the mock heraldic logos that it had used for its first 16 years – no longer would British trains feature lions. It even appeared on BR’s narrow gauge Vale of Rheidol steam engines well into the 1980s.

British Rail Sealink identity

British Rail’s identity goes to sea

Back in 1964, British Railways was much more than a railway. It ran hotels, cross channel ferries and the new identity applied across land and sea. The shortened name, British Rail, was quickly adopted although the longer title remained the official name to the very end under the British Railways Board, which was abolished in 2001.

Since Britain’s railways were privatised, our trains carry a bewildering array of liveries. The one unifying element is the famous 1964 arrow.

British Rail symbol

British Rail arrows

Note: thanks to Nick Job’s website for much background on the BR corporate identity, including pages from the original BR identity manuals. See also the late Brian Haresnape’s British Rail 1948 – 1978, a journey by design.

Once in a blue moon at Didcot

Tornado and Sir Nigel Gresley at Didcot

Tornado and Sir Nigel Gresley at Didcot

Owen and I had a wonderful day at Didcot Railway Centre today. We were there for the Once in a Blue Moon event, bringing together three very special locomotives in the very attractive early British Railways blue livery. GWR King Edward II was joined by LNER A4 Sir Nigel Gresley and Tornado, the 21st century Peppercorn A1 pacific.

King Edward II and Tornado

King Edward II and Tornado

My association with King Edward II goes back 35 years to childhood visits to Barry scrapyard, as I explained in my blogpost about the engine’s rebirth at Didcot three years ago. We were also renewing acquaintance with Sir Nigel after our visits to the Great Gathering of the six surviving A4s in York last October. But this was our first introduction to the magnificent Tornado, an engine that amazingly is the same age as Owen, having been steamed for the first time in 2008.

Our youngest steam engine

Our youngest steam engine

Coaling Tornado

Coaling Tornado

Today was made possible by a lot of amazingly dedicated people in the railway preservation movement, including the Great Western Society, the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust and the Sir Nigel Gresley Locomotive Preservation Trust. Thank you.

Sir Nigel Gresley and GWR gas turbine 18000

Sir Nigel Gresley and GWR gas turbine 18000

Finally, it’s remarkable to think that Tornado entered service over 60 years after the GWR ordered a gas turbine locomotive, 18000, as its first move to replace steam traction for express trains.

Dawlish delight: trains running again

Before the storm: Dawlish station, June 2011

Before the storm: Dawlish station, June 2011

It was nice to hear universal praise for Britain’s railways yesterday as trains started running through Dawlish just two months after devastating storms severed the line there.

Brunel’s decision to opt for a coastal route through Devon gave Britain one of its most gloriously scenic rail rides. But the South Devon main line has always been at the mercy of the sea. Network Rail’s engineers have worked wonders getting trains running again, but it’s hard to imagine this is the last time the sea will halt the trains.

On the sea wall, Teignmouth

On the sea wall, Teignmouth

One of my first holiday memories is visiting Teignmouth aged six in 1970. We watched the trains as they headed onto the sea wall. Owen, nearly three, was less impressed by noisy InterCity 125 high speed trains on the sea wall in June 2011. A few days later we took a local train from Teignmouth to Dawlish to savour the view, which proved a mistake. The train was so packed we barely had room to stand, never mind look at the view. A local told us this was par for the course with First Great Western. The old Great Western Railway would have been disgusted.

Brunel was a pioneer. He built the line through Devon using atmospheric trains, propelled by air. But the system proved unreliable and was replaced by steam trains after a year. It cost shareholders a fortune. But Brunel, like his contemporaries, built railways amazingly quickly. He would have been amazed at the snail like progress of 21st century railway building.

On Dawlish station June 2011

On Dawlish station June 2011

The Great Western main line, Dawlish

The Great Western main line, Dawlish

PS: you can see a surviving section of 1840s atmospheric railway at Didcot Railway Centre – below.

The surviving 1840s atmospheric railway pipe and broad gauge track, at Didcot Railway Centre

The surviving 1840s atmospheric railway pipe and broad gauge track, at Didcot Railway Centre

Mallard and her sister A4s: the Great Gathering at York

The six surviving A4 pacifics at National Railway Museum, York

The six surviving A4 pacifics at National Railway Museum, York

Sundays were deadly dull in the 1930s, according to my father Bob Skinner. Yet one Sunday afternoon in 1938, a beautiful blue steam engine called Mallard set a world speed record that stands to this day. This week, the National Railway Museum in York has marked the 75th anniversary of that exploit by reuniting Mallard with its five surviving sister A4 engines: Bittern, Union of South Africa, Sir Nigel Gresley, Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower.

It’s hard to describe the stunning spectacle of seeing six A4s lined up together in the  museum’s Great Hall. And the image is even more memorable knowing that Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower have made remarkable journeys back across the Atlantic from their North American homes. (They left Britain at the end of steam in the 1960s.)


Owen in the seat from which Driver Duddington set the world speed record

High speed rail, 1935 style

The A4s are arguably the most beautiful railway engines ever built. Yet they also represented a dramatic move towards high speed train services by a company that was desperately short of money. The LNER was badly hit by the collapse of coal traffic during the Great Depression, but was determined to improve its express services in competition with its great rival, the LMS west coast railway.

The first A4, Silver Link, launched the Silver Jubilee service from London to Newcastle in 1935, with special silver trains to match the engines. Silver Link ran the service alone for the first 13 days, running 536 miles a day without a hitch. The Silver Jubilee cut an hour off the journey time – a 22 per cent reduction. Back in the 1930s, Britain led the world in railways. Today, we’ve been left far behind, arguing over high speed rail, which became common place in France, Germany and other countries more than 20 years ago. (See my 2012 blogpost about the HS2 high speed rail project.)

LNER A4 Bittern, our fastest current steam locomotive

Back to 2013. Mallard’s sister A4 Bittern set a speed record for a preserved steam record this summer: 92mph. That’s quite a feat for a 76 year old engine. Bittern has been given special dispensation to exceed the 75mph speed limit for steam trains on the national rail system. A fitting tribute to the A4s and their creator, LNER chief mechanical engineer Sir Nigel Gresley.

The A4 great gathering is a triumph for the National Railway Museum. Former director Steve Davies had the idea. Canada’s Exporail rail museum and America’s National Railroad Museum in Wisconsin made possible the repatriation of A4s Dominion of Canada and Dwight D Eisenhower. Moveright International brought the engines home free of charge. The owners of Union of South Africa, Bittern and Sir Nigel Gresley added the working A4s to the mix. And Hornby sponsored the entire event. Thanks to them all, entry to this extraordinary event was entirely free.

I’ll end with a photo showing three Sir Nigel Gresleys: a sign showing the man himself with his 100th pacific, A4 4489 in 1937, alongside the engine today, in British Railways blue as 60007.

Three Nigel Gresleys

Three Nigel Gresleys

Raising a glass to Mallard...

Raising a glass to Mallard…

My lost iPad: Chiltern Railways come up trumps again

I left my iPad on a train last week. I had a very busy day and didn’t get the chance to report the loss to Chiltern Railways until I got to Dublin that evening.

The online lost property page suggested it would be at least 10 days before I heard whether it had been handed in. So imagine my delight when Kala from Chiltern called me ten minutes later to tell me they had it.

It was just the latest example of Chiltern Railways’ outstanding customer service culture. Kala told me her day finished at 7pm, but she decided to call me (at 7.30) when she saw my online report to give me the good news.

Thank you so much, Kala!


The iPad that Chiltern Railways found – the day I got it in 2010

Nice and fast: our Chiltern Railways day out to Birmingham

Chiltern Railways Mainline: next stop Birmingham!

Chiltern Railways Mainline: Birmingham here we come!

Once upon a time, Britain had real trains. Powerful engines pulled rakes of elegant coaches. On most of our main lines this is just a memory, but happily Chiltern Railways has brought back the best of the past on its Mainline service between London and Birmingham – with the welcome addition of modern touches like free wifi and the most stylish toilets I’ve seen on a British train!

We had a family day trip to Birmingham on Mainline yesterday, courtesy of complimentary tickets from Chiltern.

Setting off

Setting off

As a former regular traveller to Chester on Virgin, I was very impressed by the legroom in Chiltern’s Business Zone. (Virgin’s Pendolinos and Voyagers aren’t the roomiest of trains, especially when they’re crowded.) And the big windows show off the advantages of the British Rail Mark III coach.

Chiltern's Mainline Business Zone - plenty of room for your breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline Business Zone – plenty of room for breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline service is a lot cheaper than Virgin’s trains from Euston, as the sign at Moor Street cheekily points out…

It’s good to see Chiltern transforming the former Marylebone to Birmingham line, as it was nearly killed by British Railways. Chiltern has invested millions restoring it to mainline standards – gone are the days of holding on tight when your train took the Marylebone line at South Ruislip!

Sadly, today’s Snow Hill is a shadow of the magnificent old station – more of a bus stop than a station for a country’s second city. So I was pleased that our train terminated at Moor Street station, which has been restored as a Great Western terminus, complete with a GWR 28xx heavy freight steam locomotive. It’s a fitting counterpart to Marylebone, London’s most civilised terminus.

Welcome to Birmingham - our Chiltern Railways train on right

Welcome to Birmingham – our Chiltern Railways train on right

We liked Birmingham. We enjoyed the walk to the National Sealife centre (Owen loved running around Victoria Square) and the sealife displays were very impressive – and we did well to visit when Octonauts Peso and Kwazii were visiting… And Brindley Place is really attractive, even when there’s still snow on the ground. (It was rather warmer last time I visited in March 2010.) On the way back, Owen insisted we pop in to Waterstone’s, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Moor Street station. Who were we to argue…

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

The Great Western lives - Birmingham Moor Street 2013

The Great Western lives – Birmingham Moor Street 2013

We got the 15.55 home, smiling at the group of fellow passengers enjoying a couple of bottles of champagne.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Birmingham – and getting there was a big part of the pleasure. Thank you, Chiltern Railways.

PS: the trip was memorable for another reason. It relived a famous film that we love: the 1962 British Transport Films production, Let’s Go to Birmingham, which was a speeded up Blue Pullman trip from London Paddington to the original Snow Hill. It was a real period piece with many steam trains along the route, from the Paddington pilot engine to the steam express that passed the Pullman as it approached Moor Street. There’s a sad sequel as the driver, Ernest Morris, was tragically killed when his diesel train collided with a steam freight train at Dorridge in 1963.

Disclosure: we travelled on complimentary tickets from Chiltern Railways.

The Beeching axe, 50 years on

The axeman cometh

The axeman cometh

Can you name the 1963 boss of British Steel, British Gas or Marks & Spencer? I thought not. But you can almost certainly name the 1963 chairman of British Railways. His name? Dr Richard Beeching.

Dr Beeching wields his axe. Photos: PA, via ITV website

Dr Beeching wields his axe. Photos: PA, via ITV website

Beeching’s fame – or notoriety – is solely based on a report published 50 years ago today, on 27 March 1963. The Reshaping of British Railways proposed that 6,000 miles of railway and over 2,000 stations should be closed to reduce BR’s heavy losses. It reflected the rise in car ownership, and the view that the railways were in permanent, irreversible decline.

Railway closures didn’t begin with Beeching. Thousands of miles of track were closed between the wars, especially in 1930. But Beeching took things to a new level. It’s hard to argue with many of the closures – a lot of trains on rural branches carried a handful of passengers. Yet his reasoning was often simplistic, and many unprofitable lines were the victims of deliberate neglect, as rail historian Adrian Vaughan showed in his classic account of the last days of the steam railway, Signalman’s Twilight.

Beeching’s axe went beyond winding branches with a steam engine pulling one or two carriages. Beeching axed the last complete main line to London – the Great Central line to Sheffield – and the Waverley route through Scotland’s border country, not to mention the Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge via Milton Keynes.

Today’s rail bosses are looking to restore at least some of these lost links.

Few realise that Beeching had a sequel. ‘Beeching 2’ in 1965 would have closed parts of Britain’s most important mainlines, including the Great Western west of Plymouth. It didn’t happen, as the backlash forced British Railways to relent. (A similar reaction torpedoed the proposed Serpell cuts of 1983. As a result, few remember Sir David Serpell, unlike Dr Beeching.)

The way we were: British Railways 1963

The way we were: British Railways 1963

It’s hard to imagine how different Britain’s railways were in 1963, the year I was born. Many ancient Victorian and Edwardian steam engines were still in service. Quite a few stations close to London were still lit by oil or gas light. Dr Beeching had a vision of a modern intercity and freight railway, which still lives on today. His greatest failure was to think the railways could not flourish again. His folly has been shown as the number of passengers has almost doubled in the past 20 years.

Dr Richard Beeching lost the PR battle. Yet he put a lot of effort into explaining his proposals. Here’s the rail boss whose name we still remember 50 years on, explaining his axe.

STEAM at Swindon: a worthy tribute to the GWR

Steam, Swindon

STEAM, Swindon

As a child, I enjoyed going to the Great Western Railway Museum in Swindon. I loved seeing famous engines such as City of Truro and Lode Star – and the setting of a former chapel seemed appropriate given the almost spiritual devotion the GWR inspired.

That small museum was replaced in 2000 by STEAM, a magnificent new museum based in  part of Swindon’s famous old railway works. It’s far more interactive than the old one, and visitors get the chance to drive a train and operate a signal box.

We visited for the second time yesterday. Owen, four, is still unsettled by loud noises, so he wasn’t so impressed by the sound effects, but he loved the various hands-on play areas. We built miniature versions of Saltash, Maidenhead and Culham bridges! And he enjoyed introducing his Brio Duck pannier tank and Toad brake van to their real life counterparts. (Duck, below.)

Duck, meet Duck... GWR panniers

Duck, meet Duck… GWR panniers

The highlight of STEAM is walking underneath 4073 Caerphilly Castle, one of the GWR’s most famous engines. It’s fascinating to glance up to see the machinery of an express engine and tender above you. Curiously and appropriately, this GWR icon spent time in the old loco works in Caerphilly. My sister remembered being taken to see it there – and sure enough, Eric Mountford’s book about the works shows 4073 being repaired at Caerphilly in September 1959.

Through North Star's frame

Through North Star’s frame

STEAM has an excellent shop and cafe. And it’s next to the Outlet Village, including the National Trust’s cafe and exhibition.

Here’s my video of our visit.

STEAM, Swindon

Social Brands: Lego and Chiltern Railways

I love Lego. So it’s no surprise that Lego’s Lars Silberbauer was the star of today’s Brand Republic Social Brands event in London.

Lars started on a high: his business card is a Lego character. But his most compelling message was the way the brand has inspired its fans to share their creations and suggest new products.

Lars showed this brilliant video telling the story of Lego. It’s 17 minutes long, yet it’s been viewed by almost four million people. Over half have watched over 15 minutes, showing its appeal. I watched it with my four year old son Owen tonight, and he was enthralled. It shows the timeless truth: great content is compelling. It’s not a corporate video, but a magical story, beautifully told and animated.

I also enjoyed the story of how Lego rode to the rescue when an 11 year old American boy, James Groccia, found the Lego Emerald Night train set he had saved up for had been withdrawn. Lego sent James the precious set. It’s a great example of how delighting a customer can spread goodwill. (The home video showing his delight has been viewed over 1.6 million times.)

The other highlight of the day for me was meeting Nicola Clark, head of marketing and communications at Chiltern Railways. I’ve blogged many times about Chiltern’s excellent use of social media, so it was nice to hear more at first hand. Nicola said that social allowed Chiltern to become the brand it always wanted to be: human, caring about the customer, with real personality. She explained how the company started its social presence after seeing it as a great way to keep customers informed after the snows of 2009.

As Nicola said, passengers often just want an explanation when things go wrong. Tweeting photos of a line blocked by a tree shows us that there’s a good reason why the 0721 is late. By coincidence, Will McInness from Nixon McInnes made the same point, citing client First Capital Connect getting drivers to take photos of flooded tracks.

I took part in a panel discussion with Simon Nicholson from Honda and event chair Andrew Smith, co-author of Share This. I explained how PayPal is growing its social presence and how the company’s president, David Marcus, instinctively understands social as a way of engaging with customers and learning from their feedback. I added that the debate about who ‘owns’ social – PR, marketing or customer service – is meaningless. It should be a partnership with the needs of the audience centre stage. ‘Don’t ask what the customer can do for you. Ask what you can do for the customer.”

I’ll end with a personal story about Chiltern Railways. On Tuesday morning, I told Owen about the famous Pontcysyllte canal aqueduct in North Wales. I added that there was a railway locomotive named after it. I showed him photos from the internet of the aqueduct and the engine. That morning, I saw the engine racing through Gerrards Cross as I waited for my train. When I got to Marylebone, I took a photo (below) to show Owen later. We agreed we’d go on a train pulled by the engine one day…

Pont Cysyllte at Marylebone

Dyfrbont Pontcysyllte at Marylebone

Disclosure: I am Head of PR & Social Media for PayPal UK

Happy 150th birthday, London Underground

Going Underground

Going Underground

The London Underground celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday. On 9 January 1863, a Metropolitan Railway steam train made its way from Paddington to Farringdon to launch the world’s first underground railway.

The tube has played a vital part in London life: commuter network, bomb shelter and icon. It remains a precious symbol of life in the capital, even for those of us who don’t live in London.

It’s hard to imagine sulphurous steam trains operating in the claustrophobic stations and tunnels – amazingly, some Victorians thought the smoke health-giving, like going to a spa. In time, electricity made the Underground smoke-free. (And the first true ‘tube’, the City & South London Railway running from the City to Stockwell, was electric from the start in 1890.)

The Underground’s iconic status owes a lot to its long-lived corporate identity. The roundel is over a century old, and the typeface (although later modified) dates from the dark days of the Great War. Frank Beck created his famous map in 1933 as the Underground began life as a publicly owned institution: the London Passenger Transport Board, better known as London Transport.

The 1930s were in many ways the tube’s golden era with constant expansion, stunning architecture and new trains that served two generations and survived a world war. (I started working in London in 1987 as London Transport brought back 1938 trains to cope with demand.) Under Frank Pick, London Transport led the world as an integrated system of underground trains, buses and trams, as well as a patron of industrial art and design.

That public ownership has long outlived the nationalised British Railways – whose celebrated 1960s corporate identity has given way to an explosion of liveries and typefaces, destroying the very idea of a common network. In today’s Guardian, Andrew Martin rightly describes the tube as the people’s railway. Whether you’re rich or poor, you’ll usually find the tube the fastest, most convenient way to get around the city.

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Going underground, going overground: Amersham

Despite its name, most of the Underground is actually overground. Amersham (above, with then one year old Owen with a 1962 train – built the year of the first Beatles single) is at the country end of the Met Line. Trains from Amersham only head into the tunnel at Finchley Road, a handful of miles from the 1863 line at Baker Street. That 1962 unit was one of the trains that replaced the last passenger steam services on the Underground after almost a century. Curiously, London Transport was still using steam for engineering trains as late as 1971 with former Great Western pannier tanks.

Finally, as Britain (apparently) faces a cold snap, here’s one of those 1960s Met line trains arriving at Farringdon on 17 December 2010.

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground

Blizzard at Farringdon Underground