Sound of l’overground (SNCF Station Chimes, France)

Last week, UK junior transport minister Norman Baker complained about on-train announcements. He said there were too many and they were too annoying. This complaint is a preoccupation amongst a certain section of the rail travelling public in Britain, that being the section that hasn’t recently asked a blind traveller whether the announcements are helpful or not. I hadn’t pegged Baker for one of these, so perhaps he just forgot, or perhaps somebody from the Royal National Institute of Blind People could have a word.

This led me to think not just about train announcements, but also about station announcements in the UK; and in particular the bingly-bongly chimes which precede such announcements at my local station (bear with me – I’m going somewhere with this). These noises are intended to attract your attention. But they’re really boring.

Think about it. All telephones used to sound the same. They rang (not to mention that they were attached permanently to the wall with a wire, to the considerable amazement of my younger relatives who cannot conceive of such a tethered world). And they all rang like each other. But these days, with mobile phones and mp3 files, your mobile can have any ringtone you want. It’s an expression of individuality, of personal style.

Sadly, the bingly-bongly chimes preceding railway station announcements in the UK are not stylish, and nor do they express the personality of the train operator (or Network Rail) which runs the station on a day-to-day basis. My local operator uses a four-note chime. Others around the country vary slightly (some use, wait for it…slightly different notes) but are much of a muchness.

It could be so much better, and you only have to look across la Manche to see how. If you want some flair added to your product, you’ve always got to bet on the French as purveyors of all things chic (bingly bongly noises included) knowing how to do it.

French state railway operator SNCF used to have a very distinctive set of chimes ahead of its station announcements, first introduced in 1993. They were a bit on the bingly bongly side, but with a charming Gallic twist, a little rising trill at the end. Fancy a listen? You want this page.

But I realised that the last few times I’d been to France I hadn’t heard them, and that SNCF had replaced them with something new, and über-French, if you’ll pardon the conflation.

On further researching the subject I realised that I was getting old fast, as evidenced by the years flying by, because the old set of chimes had in fact been phased out as long ago as 2005. What they were replaced with is a great story.

Seeking a new corporate identity in the early 2000s, SNCF sought to get not only a new logo but a whole new sonic identity too. I’m struggling to think of another train operator who would have even considered their sonic identity as part of their image, but SNCF did, so out went the chimes, and in came sound designer and audio branding expert Michaël Boumendil. What an excellent job to have.

Michaël Boumendil - creator of extraordinary chimes (amongst other things). By Sixième Son (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Michaël Boumendil – creator of extraordinary railway station chimes (amongst other things). By Sixième Son (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It was Bernard Emsellem, SNCF’s then director of communications, who brought in Boumendil’s Sixième Son audio branding agency¹. By the sounds of things (I must admit this entry has stretched my translation skills, such as they are, to the limit and beyond) Sixième Son then put SNCF’s officials on a kind of mental retraining regime to make them think about identity, not just music. And once they’d done that, the agency told them that SNCF’s new chimes would do away with, well…chimes, altogether, in favour of something more humanistic and with greater emotional resonance.

I think there was a degree of hesitation on the part of Emsellem, but he then decided to buy into the concept completely. But realising that something as innovative as was being proposed (remember that the rail industry is fairly conservative, especially when it comes to long established practices like the fact that station announcement chimes actually have to chime) would probably get chucked out if presented to a focus group, he did the only thing he could. He took it on himself to make the decision to single-handedly give SNCF a sonic identity like no other railway operator. No user testing, no focus groups, no research on acceptability. Simply a decision to do it.

That might sound dictatorial on Emsellem’s part, but I like his willingness to put himself out on a limb. The chimes are heard at every SNCF station, every day, by millions of travellers. If it all went wrong, Emsellem would be carrying the can all by himself. But sometimes you have to lead opinion, not follow it, and real breaks with tradition are always likely to be rejected by focus groups, because such innovations take focus groups too far out of their comfort zones. An individual making a bold choice is how real beauty gets delivered. I don’t suppose George Gilbert Scott put the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras in front of too many focus groups either.

Oh – I haven’t told you what the jingle was. Well, as any recent rail traveller in France will know, after a little trilly bit (basically the end of the 1993 jingle) it’s a very chipper chanteuse, da-da-da-da-ing the notes of the jingle herself. She must be one of the most frequently heard singers in the whole of Europe. You can hear it here.

Fast forward a few months to March 2005 and SNCF was ready to launch its new identity to the world. A new logo was unveiled (it’s the current purple-red one that mirrors the silhouette of the TGV-duplex power cars) and so was the new sonic identity. The jingle formed the opening of  nothing less than a specially-composed SNCF theme, which acted as the score for a promotional film that unveiled the new logo. You can see and hear that video in full on Sixième Son’s website (click “see videos” on that page); the whole thing is a masterpiece of French style. Don’t be confused by Sister Sledge at the beginning – the new SNCF kicks in at 00:47, and its new logo can be seen at 2:09…and just wait till you see how they unveil it.

Patrick Ropert, SNCF’s current director of communications, describes Sixième Son’s sonic identity for SNCF as “formidable”. I couldn’t agree more.

Further Reading

¹I couldn’t have put this entry together without a feature on the development of SNCF’s sonic identity in French magazine Marketing Professionnel. Any mistakes in translation are mine.

7 thoughts on “Sound of l’overground (SNCF Station Chimes, France)

  1. Very thorough and accurate! I, too, am a huge admirer of the Sixième Son SNCF work. I saw it presented as a case history–and it changed my life. I approached Sixième Son and told them I wanted to work exclusively in audio branding and to work with them. They did some investigation into my marketing background and then came to me with a plan. Today I’ve opened Sixième Son in North America and am US Managing Director.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment – it’s much appreciated. This is a really under-reported (and probably under-thought) part of the transport industry and I hope to return to it some other time.

  2. Great account and much appreciated. The video brings back many memories, connects generations and most importantly our souls … perfect in travel, well done SNCF. Now just need an iPhone ring tone.

  3. iPhone ring tones are easy. I used an audio editing app called Fission (Mac OS). Bring in your audio, then choose the menu option to export it as a ring tone.

    I was surprised when I first heard the chime on the YouTube video. Owing, most likely, to the poor quality of the speakers in the stations and on the trains, I had not heard the chanteuse during any of our four train journeys through France this past summer. It is now my SMS tone. It always makes heads turn when it goes off.

    1. Thanks; this sounds very clever! I’m sure I couldn’t officially endorse such initiatives; the jingle remains SNCF’s copyright after all. But it really is a perfect attention grabber as you say. That’s what it was designed for, I guess…

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