When British Rail unveiled its comprehensive corporate identity in 1964, one of the key elements which made it work was a new typeface. It was called Rail Alphabet and it has subsequently proved to be the most successful and long-lasting element of the corporate identity.
BR’s “rail blue” corporate identity, which was officially applied from 1966 onwards, was one of the most comprehensive ever adopted by any British transport company, and indeed probably any transport company (you can read two earlier entries about it here and here). It was designed to wipe out the existing hotchpotch of styles and motifs which had graphically illustrated the confused nature of the business from its creation in 1948 until that point. British Railways (as it was publicly known until 1966) even had multiple typefaces in use on its signage and its trains. Most frequently seen was Gill Sans, a chilly all-upper case typeface dating from before the second world war and inherited from the London and North Eastern Railway (read more about it here). This bossy and sometimes difficult typeface seemed increasingly out of place in the more informal 1960s, as longstanding social norms were challenged or abandoned. Meanwhile, a condensed (narrow) rectangular font served for train numbers on many locomotives. And I’m afraid I can’t think of any word other than ‘ugly’ for that one.
Rail Alphabet was the answer to these challenges. It was a mixed upper and lower case typeface, instantly looking more friendly than Gill Sans. It was well proportioned, with nicely rounded ‘0’s, ‘o’s and ‘O’s for instance – unlike the rectangular locomotive lettering. It would go on to be applied everywhere across the British Rail network, including the company’s road vehicles, hovercraft and ships. Because this blog doesn’t feature hovercraft very often, here is Rail Alphabet on a cross-channel hovercraft:
It wasn’t actually British Rail’s first go at a new typeface for the rail blue corporate identity. The company had been much impressed by the Transport typeface designed by Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir as part of a comprehensive road network resigning programme launched in the 1960s. British Railways tried out signage using Transport at Coventry station (as detailed here), but it wasn’t entirely satisfactory.
As Calvert would later explain, the problem was that Transport was designed to be quickly assimilated by drivers as road signs were approached at speed. In a station environment, where there was more time to read signage, speed of interpretation was no longer the key concern. Calvert and Kinneir were asked to design a typeface specifically for the railway, and so it was that this pair of designers ended up defining the ‘feel’ not just of Britain’s roads, but its railways (and later, its airports too). If anyone can lay any claim to having branded Britain in the post-war period, it is surely Calvert and Kinneir. No-one else has come close to designing so much of what creates the everyday experience of the appearance of Britain’s public realm.
The result of Calvert and Kinneir’s assessment of the needs of a typeface at railway stations as opposed to one being designed for roads is that Rail Alphabet’s letters are slightly heavier and more closely spaced than those of Transport, with less exaggerated tails on the letters. It is similar to Helvetica, but distinctively different, though it’s hard to say exactly why. It’s certainly more tightly spaced, and I think the width of the letter strokes is a little more consistent throughout.
Deliberately, Rail Alphabet is neither showy nor shouty. Calvert described it as “low-key”, intended to stand out from the commercial signage at stations which was more flamboyant. “It’s ordinary,” she said. “People think nobody designed it, because it’s ordinary.”¹ Rail Alphabet is all about the message, not the medium. It is designed with simplicity in mind, to give information without the character of the lettering distracting from or overwhelming the message being conveyed. The mix of upper and lower case text was definitely easier to take in than the bossy all-upper case Gill Sans it replaced. As such it was the perfect typeface for British Rail, which was at the time trying to project a new image of low-key, straightforward competence, at some remove from its previous reputation for scandalous financial mismanagement and a confused strategic vision.
The full version of Rail Alphabet was detailed in British Rail’s corporate design manual, along with the tiling system that allowed the letters to be correctly spaced in relation to each other – a key concern given that signs were quite likely to be put together by hand; these were the days before everyone had access to desktop computers with installed fonts.
Used alongside Rail Alphabet was a set of standard pictograms which for decades defined the look of British Rail’s stations (you can see the full set here, in BR’s Corporate Identity Manual). While the road sign pictograms that accompanied Transport on Britain’s road signs were designed by Calvert, I’ve yet to absolutely confirm whether those that accompanied Rail Alphabet were too, or whether they were the work of Design Research Unit, which created BR’s double arrow logo.
Signage at stations was almost exclusively in black text on white backgrounds. It was a significant change from the Gill Sans signage it ousted, which had featured white text on darker coloured backgrounds. There’s no convincing evidence that one is better than the other, and for every study I’ve read finding that dark text on light backgrounds is more legible than light on dark, I’ve read another that has found the exact opposite. Only a cynic would note that it keeps sign manufacturers busy if transport operators are kept in a state of confusion as to which is better, and regularly swap between one and the other.
Rail Alphabet wasn’t just for station signage. All the lettering and numbers on trains (bar some very minor exceptions) was in Rail Alphabet, as was signage inside trains. So were trackside notices, BR’s letterheads, timetables, posters, and practically anything else that had letters or numbers on it, including (with apposite circularity) the Corporate Identity Manual.
It might not have been the most stylish typeface ever created, but Rail Alphabet was perfect for its job, and its lack of overt showiness has given it a timeless quality. A more obviously fashionable typeface would have dated much more quickly.
It didn’t take long before others noticed that Rail Alphabet was one of the best wayfinding typefaces out there. British Airports Authority adopted it for its airports (see a picture here), and the Danish state railway operator DSB imported it too (see a picture here). Years later, this debt would be acknowledged in the preface to a book about British Rail’s design work, which was published by the Danish Design Council and featured a foreword by Jens Nielsen, Director of Design, Danish State Railways (Cousins, 1986: p2).
However, the place most British people would have seen Rail Alphabet outside British Rail was at the country’s public hospitals, where it was used on directional signage. It’s no great surprise: both British Rail and the National Health Service were large public sector organisations, both operated large public buildings with complicated layouts, and both needed a typeface which would work well on signage directing the public around their premises. It did mean, however, that if you were in a hospital and presented with directional signage, there was a subconscious feeling that you might be about to miss a train. Vice versa, presented with directional signage at a railway station, you could sometimes get the queasy feeling that you were about to undergo an unpleasant medical procedure. It seems to have spread as far as hospitals in Denmark, because I’m pretty sure that the sign in this photo taken at Sonderborg Hospital is in Rail Alphabet too (though it might be Helvetica in a bold weight).
At this point, an element of confusion creeps in. I’ve several times seen it stated that Rail Alphabet was developed by Calvert and Kinnear from the typeface used for the NHS (for instance in Jackson, 2013: p100 or Garfield, 2010: p158). However, other sources put the direction of movement the other way round, and Calvert gave the distinct impression that Rail Alphabet was created for British Rail, when interviewed for the BBC TV programme The Golden Age of British Rail. Given that British Rail had a keen interest in developing a new and cohesive corporate identity, the balance of probabilities also strongly favours it, rather than the NHS, being the typeface’s first customer. I’m willing to be proved wrong, however.
British Rail essentially gifted Rail Alphabet to others, enhancing the typeface’s reputation. It makes for an interesting contrast with the practice of London Transport (now Transport for London), which has jealously guarded its specially created Johnston/New Johnston typefaces since their creation, ensuring that they have never spread beyond London (or carefully licensed books and souvenirs). It’s actually London Transport’s model that is the most emulated today, with post-privatisation railway infrastructure operator Network Rail restricting use of its bespoke Brunel typeface (inherited from its predecessor Railtrack and developed for signage at the major stations it manages) to the British railway industry.
British Rail’s rail blue corporate identity eventually vanished as the business began to segment into different business sectors in the 1980s, but Rail Alphabet mostly just kept on going, despite challenges posed by the new sectors’ branding. InterCity rebranded in 1987, at which pointed it dispensed with Rail Alphabet for its logo. Its replacement was a spindly, all-upper case italicised typeface, which lacked the authority of Rail Alphabet and now looks a lot more dated. However, Rail Alphabet continued to be used for the carriage and locomotive numbers of InterCity trains and for signage at its stations. Though both Regional Railways and Network SouthEast also experimented with new typefaces, they too retained Rail Alphabet for station signage and technical lettering on trains. The only cohesive pre-privatisation move away from Rail Alphabet was made by the Parcels sector, which rebranded itself as Rail Express Systems in 1991 and used what I think is Frutiger for its train numbers and other signage.
Outside the railway, the other users of Rail Alphabet eventually adopted different typefaces. BAA dropped Rail Alphabet at its airports in favour of something called BAA (Bembo) which has many fans, but which to me looks irredeemably 1980s and has itself now been replaced by Frutiger. The NHS in England adopted Frutiger in the 1990s and in Scotland chose Stone Sans, but you’ll still find many Rail Alphabet signs at NHS premises in both countries, like this one, at my local dentists’ surgery:
The privatisation of the rail network saw a bewildering array of new typefaces introduced to the national railway network. While Network Rail’s ongoing ownership of its major stations means that Brunel has been around for a while now, other typefaces have come and gone at stations and on trains as train operating franchises have changed hands. I’ve lost count of the number of typefaces that have been seen on the East Coast Main Line intercity services as various operators have tried to make a go of that unlucky franchise.
It was suggested in 2009’s Better Rail Stations report by Chris Green (inventor of Network SouthEast and all-round modern railway management genius) and Professor Sir Peter Hall for the Department for Transport that Brunel should be adopted as a standard typeface for signage at British railway stations. It would therefore do the job Rail Alphabet had once done; a suggestion to which the DfT cheerfully paid no heed whatsoever. I think only South West Trains has adopted Brunel on its station signage (like Network Rail’s in white text on a dark blue background). The genie is well and truly out of the bottle and the chances of getting Britain’s railway operators to agree on a single typeface for use at stations now seem pretty slim.
That said, Rail Alphabet continues to play a key role on the national rail network. It is the typeface mandated for lineside operational safety notices, as you can see in the current Railway Group Standard covering the matter (GI/RT7033, set in Rail Alphabet itself, of course). As a result, you’ll see it telling you to stop, look and listen at crossing points on the railway which don’t have automatic barriers.
You’ll also see it on the data panels on most British railway trains. Some operators have abandoned it for train numbers; South West Trains uses the spiky but coolly glamorous Futura which much better matches its logo than Rail Alphabet, though it is of course a different typeface to its station signage, and there’s a lack of consistent branding as a result. A surprising number of train operators still cleave to Rail Alphabet for their train numbers and sometimes station signage, however. Why, after all, meddle with something designed to work specifically on the railway system, unless you have very good reason to? Given the insipid brand identities of several train operating franchises on Britain’s railway network today, it’s quite possible that the Rail Alphabet train numbers are the best-designed things to be seen there.
It’s a testament to the quality of Calvert and Kinneir’s work that years since the rest of British Rail’s rail blue corporate identity has vanished, Rail Alphabet soldiers on, doing what it does, as well as it does. If you’ve never noticed their work before – because they never really intended you to notice it – hopefully you’ll never look at a train number the same way again.
Bibliography and further reading
Boocock, Colin (2000): Railway Liveries: BR Traction 1948-1995. Ian Allen: Shepperton
Cousins, James (1986): British Rail Design. Danish Design Council: Copenhagen
Garfield, Simon (2010): Just My Type. Profile Books: London
Green, Chris and Hall, Professor Sir Peter (2009): Better Rail Stations. Her Majesty’s Stationery Office: London. An online version is here
Jackson, Tanya (2013): British Rail: The Nation’s Railway. The History Press: Stroud, Gloucestershire
¹ BBC Four (2015): The Golden Age of British Rail. BBC, London
doublearrow.co.uk: the British Rail corporate identity manual recreated as a website, here