The Rainbow Way (Rainbows in Transport)

Rainbows are a recurring motif in various art forms. The same beauty which compels artists to return to the spectrum of visible light again and again attracts people in the transport industry too. It’s partly the beauty of the rainbow, partly its familiarity (practically everyone in the world must have seen at least one), and partly the emotional resonance: the sun returning after a period of rain. Religious art is the source of many early artistic rainbows, thanks to the biblical allusions stemming from the story of Noah’s Ark. But the earliest example I’ve so far found of a rainbow in art is from the late 1460s – Hans Memling’s Last Judgement triptych, which is nothing to do with Noah at all. The triptych shows the rainbow as a full circle, which is how it would appear as seen from high up, without a horizon getting in your way; generally from an aircraft. However did he know? Turner and Constable notably featured rainbows in their landscape paintings from time to time. Much more up to date, and in the sphere of music, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album used prisms and rainbows to great effect on packaging both initially and on the album’s various re-releases, while MCA Records used a rainbow on its record labels for many years.

But we’re interested in rainbows in the transport industry. We’ve already looked at the rainbow-illuminated Nanpu Bridge in Shanghai and there are other examples of rainbow illuminated bridges too. In Tokyo, the Shuto Expressway No. 11 Daiba Route –Port of Tokyo Connector Bridge is better known simply as the Rainbow Bridge, and is illuminated at night in rainbow colours (usually; they can be varied and sometimes it’s lit in pure white). The lights are charged by solar energy during the day.

The Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo. By Gussisaurio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo. By Gussisaurio (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, there’s a light rail bridge in Tempe Town, Arizona, USA, which is illuminated in a dazzling display of moving rainbow colours every time a tram passes over it (rather than being in a state of constant illumination as Tokyo’s Rainbow Bridge is). It’s actually an art project by American artist Buster Simpson, who specialises in large-scale installations.

The light rail bridge over Tempe Town Lake, Tempe, Arizona, USA. By Michael Keith Photography [CC BY- 2.0] via this flickr page.
The light rail bridge over Tempe Town Lake, Tempe, Arizona, USA. By Michael Keith Photography [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page.

You can read more about Buster’s Tempe Town Light Rail Bridge illumination project (the bridge’s coloured lights are programmable, for instance) on the artist’s website, here.

It’s certainly a more imaginative light rail rainbow, and more dramatic, than the one you can find at another light rail system; this time on the trams in the French city of Angers. It’s a bit of an odd one, this. The rainbow pattern is sort of plopped onto the side of the tram body, without much apparent thought for the architecture of the vehicle. It’s not immediately obvious why rainbows are the way forward, but local authority Angers Loire Métropole explains that, “With the colors of the rainbow sky, the Angers tramway expresses the values ​​of confluence, exchanges and convergence…A bright livery, pure white, a mixture of all colors, diffracts into ribbons of rainbow colours. It thus illuminates the city and brings color and warmth to a bichromic environment (slate gray and white limestone).” Well, there you go. The French certainly have a way with words. The design work was undertaken by French design agency RCP, which also designed the very lovely interiors of the trams (more on its website, here) and has recently undertaken some extraordinary works on the new tram system in Tours. Angers’ rainbow-on-white tram livery has spread to its buses too, as part of the city’s transport corporate identity Irigo.

One of the trams in Angers. By Cramos (Photo personnelle (own work)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
An Alstom Citadis tram in Angers, near Terra Botanica tram stop, 25 May 2012. By Cramos (Photo personnelle (own work)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rainbows also feature on buses half a world away from Angers, this time in Oahu (Hawaii, USA), where bus company TheBus features a big old rainbow on the side of some of its vehicles.

By Musashi1600 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
One of TheBus’s articulated vehicles at the Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. By Musashi1600 (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hawaii’s climate means it sees many rainbows, so it’s not surprising some have found their way onto the sides of buses. But as with Angers, the rainbow has been applied seemingly without much thought given as to how it works as a livery, how well it fits onto the vehicle, or how it relates to the operator logo.

For a much more subtle, and more effective approach, it’s little surprise to find ourselves once more in the company of London-based transport design agency Best Impressions.

Midlands-based bus company trentbarton has won a reputation for its innovative marketing, customer service and branding. When it relaunched its bus service from Nottingham to Long Eaton in 2003, it called upon the manifest talents of Best Impressions (who the last time we bumped into them were busy overturning everything anybody thought they knew about how to present bus and train maps). trentbarton had had its “Rainbow” branding in place for some 10 years¹, but Best Impression’s reworking of Rainbow 5 was head-turning, unlike anything anyone had seen on an urban bus route before. Best known previously for liveries incorporating curves and ‘swooshes’ (scoops of colour at one or other end of a public transport vehicle), Best Impressions this time came up with a livery based on a purple field, relieved mainly by a mid purple circle three-quarters of the way along the bus. The rest of the livery relied on eye-catching fonts selling the route name, destinations and service frequency, and a rainbow-coloured device based on the shape of a bow (because of local bow-wielding folk hero Robin Hood). No-one had ever seen anything quite like it on a bus, although it marked a new trend for Best Impressions in utilising shapes as a key element in bus liveries (later seen on the Guildford Park and Ride “leaf” livery, for instance).

A Rainbow 5 service in Beeston, 24 May 2008. By mattbuck (category) (Photo by mattbuck.) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Rainbow 5 service in Beeston, 24 May 2008. By mattbuck (category) (Photo by mattbuck.) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The updated Rainbow branding eventually spread over five separate routes, featuring the same look but each with its own base colour. However, keen to lead the market, rather than follow it, neither Best Impressions nor its client trentbarton have stood still, and most of trentbarton’s Rainbow route branding has now been consigned to history, with new Best Impressions-designed branding introduced. But the rainbow is still hanging on in there, in Best Impressions’ latest iteration of the trentbarton logo. First appearing on the “i4” route branding (replacing Rainbow 4) in 2012, the logo features eight circles, each one a different colour. It echoes both the original bow motif, and trentbarton’s rainbow-hued history, and has since spread to many of trentbarton’s other routes.

The latest trentbarton logo, appearing on the company's special gold bus. Detail from an original photo by soloM920 [CC BY- 2.0] via this flickr page
The latest trentbarton logo, appearing on the company’s special centenary gold bus. The company logo is on the front, while the rainbow-coloured bow device reappears as part of the livery on the side of the bus. Detail from an original photo by soloM920 [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

Britain’s railways have toyed with rainbows too, with mixed results. When Britain’s National Express Group took over the franchise for train operations from London to East Anglia in 2004, it unveiled a branding for the company called “one”. Everything about it caused an absolute hoo-hah amongst railway enthusiasts and the specialist transport press. For a start, the name was lambasted as liable to cause confusion (as in, “The 08:20 one service” or “Passengers should use platform two for one services to Ipswich”) and because it sounded “silly” (i.e. not like a ‘traditional’ railway name). The accompanying livery raised eyebrows too, featuring rainbow stripes at the ends of vehicles. I really liked it, but judge for yourself:

A One train at Marks Tey station, 10 July 2007. By Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
A One train at Marks Tey station, 10 July 2007. By Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

It didn’t last long, replaced by National Express Group’s boring corporate colours (which are barely a livery at all) only four years later. More successfully, perhaps because its promotional and temporary nature has avoided railway enthusiasts frothing at the mouth, has been the Thameslink Programme livery applied to two trains on Britain’s cross-London Thameslink franchise. They sport a rainbow-striped branding which is repeated across electronic and printed information concerning the works linked to the Thameslink Programme (a multi-year project to massively upgrade the north-south cross-London Thameslink route). The impacts of the upgrade works on train travellers have been quite severe at times, and the eye-catching Thameslink Programme branding is a sensible part of a strategy which tries to do as much as possible to make sure railway passengers are aware of the works which might affect them. The rainbow-hued website for the Thameslink Programme is here.

One of the First Capital Connect trains used on the Thameslink route, in Thameslink Programme. Seen at West Hampstead, London, UK, 16 February 2013. By Steven Hughes [CC BY- 2.0] via this flickr page
One of the First Capital Connect trains used on the Thameslink route, in Thameslink Programme colours. Seen at West Hampstead, London, UK, 16 February 2013. By Steven Hughes [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

No review of the impact of rainbows on transport could be complete without acknowledging the rainbow’s adoption as a symbol of unity and solidarity by the gay rights movement, in the form of the pride flag. It is another of the ways through which rainbows have found their way into transport.

As part of various gay pride events in several cities, pedestrian crossings have been repainted in rainbow colours. The idea was first adopted in Los Angeles (California, USA), on Santa Monica Boulevard, in summer 2012. It was then picked up by other cities including Sydney, Australia.

Bidgee [CC-BY-SA-3.0-au], via Wikimedia Commons
The rainbow crossing in Oxford Street, Sydney, Australia. Bidgee [CC-BY-SA-3.0-au], via Wikimedia Commons

The rainbow crossing over Oxford Street was the subject of some controversy, after it was reported that pedestrians were stopping in the middle of the crossing to have their photographs taken. The crossing was eventually removed, to the annoyance of some Sydney residents, who created the DIY Rainbow movement (members chalk rainbow crossings on roads on a guerilla basis), with a prominent Facebook campaign.

Utrecht, in The Netherlands, installed a rainbow crossing this year…

Pedestrian crossing painted in rainbow colours, Lange Viestraat, Utrecht, The Netherlands, June 19 2013. By Hansmuller (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Pedestrian crossing painted in rainbow colours, Lange Viestraat, Utrecht, The Netherlands, June 19 2013. By Hansmuller (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

…while Vancouver (Canada) announced that it would host a permanent rainbow crossing to replace a temporary one installed in 2012 (report from local website Vancity Buzz here).

London (UK) has yet to sport a rainbow road crossing, but city transport authority Transport for London flew a rainbow flag over its headquarters for London Pride Week during June/July 2013. It also took part in the main Pride Parade and screened a short film on the main stage at the main Pride event, “celebrating the work of TfL’s lesbian and gay staff.” I asked a gay friend in the transport industry what he thought about all this, and he just snorted at the idea, which he suggested was unnecessary and rather patronising, especially as same-sex marriage has just been legalised in the UK.

The pride flag over Transport for London’s headquarters 55 Broadway. Image from TfL’s Facebook page, 27 June (https://www.facebook.com/transportforlondon)

So rainbows are everywhere in the world of transport. But the largest one you’ll ever see in a transport context is at Madrid Barajas Airport Terminal 4 – and we’ll look at that one next week.

¹Update, 13 January 2014

This entry has been updated to correct a factual inaccuracy. The original version of this piece suggested that trentbarton and Best Impressions invented the Rainbow route branding in 2003. trentbarton’s former managing director Ian Morgan (and deputy chairman of Wellglade, a group of independent bus operators including trentbarton) contacted me to put me right. The Rainbow branding on trentbarton’s bus routes had in fact been around since 1992. Morgan says he believes that Bruce Hugman, at trentbarton’s communications consultancy Equus, was the person who initially suggested the Rainbow name. Not only am I delighted to put that all on the record, but with a source as impeccable as Morgan, I think we can safely say we now have the definitive history.

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