Vive Versailles! Vive le RER! (RER Line C promotional wraps, Paris, France)

There are a few months left to enjoy an unusual transport/art collaboration. Where? Where else, but the oh-so-chic French capital Paris.

Five trains on RER Line C have been redecorated to promote the extraordinary rooms and gardens of the Palace of Versailles, the home of the French monarchy for just over 100 years before the French Revolution swept it from power.

Promotional liveries are nothing new. Here’s a UK multiple unit advertising the joys of Exeter, a city in the south-west of England.

Chris McKenna (Thryduulf) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Promotional livery for the city of Exeter, carried by a Wessex Trains diesel multiple unit in 2005. Chris McKenna (Thryduulf) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the last 10-15 years, the commercial availability of high-quality, durable vinyl film, and UV-resistant inks has made it much easier than it used to be to create one-off train liveries which are actually a commercial proposition to apply, even if the life of the promotion is no more than a few months.

Advertising and promotional wraps on trains, like the one above, aren’t always entirely welcomed. Railway author Colin Boocock (2001:  125) says, “advertising liveries (while undoubtedly eye-catching) exhibit a distinct lack of taste: gaudiness does not equate to beauty. There is a huge difference between the startling livery styles devised by professional stylists and the somewhat garish efforts of the advertisers to attract our attention using these special train liveries”¹. He suggests that the promotional livery carried by Gatwick Express for Continental Airlines (you can see it towards the bottom of this page at the Southern Railway E-mail Group) is a possible exception, but I can’t be doing with it at all (I don’t mind the Exeter one above if it really has to be done, although that Roman soldier looks really grumpy) which only goes to show that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But before I talk myself out of this blog on the grounds that I’m supposed to be telling you about beautiful transport, rather than gaudy transport, I should add that in general, the problem lies with the designs (like this somewhat uninspiring effort promoting a brand of ready-made Cornish Pasty)…

Arriva Trains Wales Class 158 at Crewe railway station. By Chris McKenna (Thryduulf). Via Wikimedia Commons.
Arriva Trains Wales Class 158 at Crewe railway station. By Chris McKenna (Thryduulf) [CC-BY-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

…rather than the existence of the vehicle wrapping vinyls that make them possible. I rather like the idea of vinyls. I have a particular bee in my bonnet about the way that when train operating franchises change hands in the UK, it’s often the case that trains continue to run in outdated liveries for years afterwards. Yes, I know that passengers will tell you that the train turning up on time is more important than what colour it is. But it shows a degree of contempt towards railway passengers by some train operators that you wouldn’t find in any other customer-facing industry. You don’t see supermarkets taken over by rivals continuing to operate under their original names for years and years (except when the UK’s Co-Operative Group bought the Somerfield chain in 2009, which led to a lot of subsequent on-line criticism that the policy of not rebranding the Somerfield stores immediately was confusing – go figure). I also suspect that if you asked train passengers the question, “Do you mind that your new train operator can’t be bothered to brand your trains in its corporate colours?” you might get an interesting answer. But as Aura Graphics’ website explains, you can re-livery an entire train in just five days; far less time than it would take to repaint it, and I’m fairly sure it’s a lot cheaper too. I’ve previously mentioned the work Aura Graphics did on the Skyfall train, and they’re not the only ones. Stewart Signs Rail is another company which undertakes similar work, wrapping trains in the smart Scotrail livery amongst others – they have a neat video here. My inner nerd might be showing at this point, but I reckon it all looks absolutely fascinating.

Having had my rant about inadequate train re-liverying, let’s return to Paris.

A partnership between the Palace of Versailles and French state railway operator SNCF (full details here) has seen five RER Line C trains gain some highly unusual graphics. RER Line C runs to Versailles (south-west of Paris city centre) and is a perfect way to get there, so using Line C trains to promote Versailles makes a great deal of sense. Versailles is one of Paris’s top tourist attractions. The grounds contain not only the Palace of Versailles, but several other smaller buildings. The Palace was essentially the formal building, while the Grand Trianon was smaller, less formal and more familial, and the Petit Trianon was smaller again, intended for use (so I read) when King Louis XV was at his hobby of botany. It was later presented to Marie Antoinette by Louis XVI and while she was there, she enjoyed playing at ruralism thanks to the ultimate aristocratic folly: a model village and farm which she had built in its grounds (you begin to see what the revolutionaries were on about). One suspects that if she were alive today, she’d be a big fan of BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. Meanwhile, all the buildings at Versailles are contained within its expansive formal gardens, which are an attraction in their own right.

Being France, SNCF’s vinyls are rather more stylish and adventurous than the norm. They don’t simply advertise Versailles. Non, mes amis, they recreate it. On otherwise perfectly normal suburban trains, you understand. Oh, and did I mention that the vinyls aren’t on the outside, but on the inside? They’re quite something, as you can see from the images below.

First off, arguably one of the most famous rooms in the Palace of Versailles, the Hall of Mirrors.

The Hall of Mirrors
The Hall of Mirrors, at the Palace of Versailles, as recreated on an RER train. Via Chateau de Versailles’ information page on the project
The actual Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.
The actual Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. By Simdaperce (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Next up is the bedroom of the Queen, in the Petit Trianon.

The bedchamber of the Queen, in the Petit Trianon, as recreated on an RER train. Via Chateau de Versailles’ information page on the project
xxxx By Moonik (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The actual bedchamber of the Queen in the Petit Trianon. By Moonik (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Back to the Palace of Versailles for Louis XVI’s Library:

By Dudule91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Library of Louis XVI, as recreated on an RER train. By Dudule91 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The actual Library of Louis XVI. By Fanny Schertzer (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The actual Library of Louis XVI. By Fanny Schertzer (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

There are other recreations on the interiors of the trains too, as you can see here. According to Chateau de Versaille, which runs the Palace, the work will enable, “regular passengers of the RER C to enjoy a virtual visit and visitors on the way to the Palace to have a foretaste of Versailles.”

The design of the vinyls to fit in with the internal layout of the trains was masterminded by advertising agency Encore Eux (click on the Actu tab for some more pictures). They were unveiled on 16 May 2012, with an intended lifespan of “at least” 18 months. By my reckoning, that gives us until November this year to be sure to see them. The graphics have transformed the RER trains involved into experiential works of art in a highly impressive manner.

And this, I think, proves that there’s nothing wrong with promotional train liveries applied using vinyls. It’s all about the design work that goes into the vinyls in the first place. Let’s hope for further similarly adventurous uses of vinyl elsewhere in the world of transport. The possibilities are almost endless.


1 Boocock, C. (2001) Railway Liveries: Privatisation 1995-2000, Surrey: Ian Allan

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