For my money, the best new visual identity of all Britain’s early privatised train companies belonged to Midland Mainline, the intercity operator which ran trains from London St Pancras to Leeds, Nottingham and Sheffield. It used something that looked new and attractive, yet paid subtle tribute to the golden age of the railways, and didn’t descend into the pastiche of GNER.
Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that it came from the fertile minds at transport design agency Best Impressions, so I asked its design director Ray Stenning how it had come about. The firm was busy during the early years of rail privatisation, also developing the visual identities for WAGN (mentioned in the last article on visual identities of privatised train operators, but not applied widely enough), Central Trains (subtle and very attractive), Silverlink and South West Trains. The latter is still going strong and remains much admired. It also spread to signage (little SWT ‘swooshes’ of colour could be found on station nameplates, for example), so it was a more complete effort than many other train operators managed.
Ray remembers the early days of the privatised British railway network as “quite thrilling”. Although British Rail’s business sectors had moved away from the Rail Blue visual identity some years previously, “Intercity’s identity was quite formal,” remarks Ray. “Until privatisation, British Rail sectors thought that to be taken seriously everything had to be that formal. But privatisation was fun, and the operators suddenly thought, ‘Now we can do what we want!'”
Midland Mainline’s receptiveness to something adventurous was all the more surprising because it was to an extent a Cinderella Intercity train operator. Operating from the run-down St Pancras station in London – this was before its radical transformation for Eurostar services – it was the third wheel of London to the north express train operators, squeezed between high-profile GNER on the East Coast Main Line and Virgin Trains on the West Coast Main Line. Midland Mainline operated on the Midland Main Line (hence the name) but didn’t even make it as far north as Scotland, generally running no further north than Sheffield.
The company that won the Midland Mainline franchise was National Express, which until privatisation had been most famous for its national network of budget long-distance coaches, and its recent purchase of Birmingham bus company West Midlands Travel. Best Impressions had already worked on a concept livery design for Midland Mainline as part of National Express’s bid documentation. When the company was successful in securing the franchise, National Express asked another design consultancy, Saatchi and Saatchi Design, to work alongside Best Impressions on some additional elements of the brand identity.
You would never have guessed Midland Mainline’s junior status from the teal and tangerine dream that emerged when it showed off the first Intercity HST (or Intercity 125 in old money) to wear its new visual identity in 1996. No-one had seen anything like it before. The upper bodies of the power car and carriages were jewel-toned in teal green above a beige stripe along the bottom, with a narrow white stripe separating the two colours. The teal green area had a rounded bottom edge where it ran round the front of the train. Three tangerine-orange bands ran along the bottom of the teal green portion, and wrapped onto the front of the train, where they tucked down onto the lower part of the nosecone. And if you knew your railway history, then you had seen something like that before, in the stripes applied to the Coronation Scot class streamliners, operated in the inter-war years by the LMS, Midland Mainline’s distant ancestor on the Midland Main Line.
The Coronation Scot was a West Coast Main Line machine, rather than a Midland Main Line one, but the hark back to one of the LMS’s most famous trains gave some historical grounding to Midland Mainline’s new visual identity without it becoming nonsensical nostalgia. Intriguingly, the association might have been even more obvious, because teal green wasn’t the initial colour choice. “The original idea was deep red,” Ray recalls. “But I offered some other colourways, and the teal green was my choice. It had a look of quality but was more modern and efficient-looking than maroon, which had a slightly more old-fashioned and heritage appearance.”
Saatchi and Saatchi Design, meanwhile, created Midland Mainline’s ‘leaping stag’ logo (“I liked it,” comments Ray) and chose the typeface for the lettering that appeared on trains (carriage numbers and so on), timetables and other publicity, which was Stone Sans. The “Midland Mainline” wordmark lettering, also from Saatchi and Saatchi Design was in a serif typeface. If it was based on Stone Serif, it was highly modified in the process, and I’m still not certain exactly what it is. Saatchi and Saatchi Design handled the train interiors – a pity I think, as Best Impressions has done some remarkable inside-and-out work on other public transport services. That left Best Impressions to look after the external treatment of the train, the all-important first impression that passengers get as their train pulls into a station. Train exteriors also act as mobile advertisements for their operators, seen as trains pass through towns and country, so they are one of the most important parts of a train operator’s visual identity.
“We were given a complete free hand,” Ray recalls. “So I wanted to create a uniform look, to make the HST look as though it was one train.” Previous British Rail colour schemes had seen the powercars of the HST treated differently from the carriages sandwiched between them. When in Rail Blue, they had a large yellow stripe extending halfway onto their sides, while a small part of the rear of the powercar was painted to match the carriages. In later Intercity colours there was a large diagonal break in the livery over the radiator grille on the powercar sides. Such treatments tended to visually separate the powercars from the carriages, but the Midland Mainline identity modernised the look of the HST by being consistently applied along the full length of the train. Why a beige lower body though? “It provided contrast,” explains Ray, “but it’s also the colour of HST brake dust. We do understand the operating circumstances of our visual identities.” That’s not as common as you might think; there are too many transport visual identities that show the dirt too easily.
On the front of the powercars, Best Impressions made the best of the requirement for yellow ‘safety’ ends on trains (a requirement which has finally been abandoned only this year, though plenty of brand new trains are still sporting them for some reason) by curving the yellow area across the cab side windows, making the well-known shape of the HST look fresh again. “If you’ve got to have a yellow end,” says Ray, “make it work with the architecture of the train, so it enhances that architecture, and the architecture enhances it.” He does add that with the benefit of hindsight, he should have added a black area running down from the cab roof and around the front window, because there’s a low pressure area there that sucks diesel exhaust down and dirties coloured paint. (Years later, he got the chance to correct this when Stagecoach took over operations on the Midland Main Line with its East Midlands Trains franchise. East Midlands Trains’ HSTs have similarly shaped yellow ends to those of Midland Mainline, but with the inclusion of the black area above the cab window.)
Best Impressions incorporated Midland Mainline’s leaping stag logo on the powercars, its back feet breaking into the tangerine stripes. It’s a small detail, but it looks so much more considered than having the deer plonked thoughtlessly somewhere within the teal green area. The teal green was also used as the main colour on printed publicity, or at least something close to it (I was never quite convinced that printers’ ink precisely captured the shade used on the trains) in a curved shape which responded to the lines of the leaping stag logo (see a timetable cover here). The stag got all over everything, appearing both alongside the “Midland Mainline” lettering on this poster, and as a watermark behind the main text. But it was a very nice logo, so I can see why.
What I particularly liked about Midland Mainline in its early days was that its brand went much further than the colour of its trains and publicity. Operating out of dingy St Pancras, on the least glamorous Intercity route of them all, it still dared to think differently. Many of us fondly remember its policy of giving all passengers – be they First or Standard Class – free tea and coffee. A small thing, but appreciated on the wages of someone in the early years of their career.
Perhaps more importantly in railway development terms, after placing an early order for lower-speed, shorter trains (Class 170 Turbostars if you like to know that kind of thing), Midland Mainline substantially increased the frequency of services on its route, using the Turbostars to fill in the gaps between fast expresses with slightly slower services stopping at more stations. The result was – unsurprisingly – notable growth in passenger numbers. As they say, build it, and they will come. Midland Mainline’s visual identity was tailored by Best Impressions to suit the different architecture of the Turbostars. The Turbostars had a lot more window and a lot less bodyside compared to the HSTs, lacking in particular individual power cars at the ends. There was a panel-line that provided a natural boundary between the beige and teal green areas, but the leaping stag had to be made smaller. It was positioned right across the tangerine bodyside stripes, with its head breaking into the window area. In an early attempt to grapple with the needs of passengers with impairments, the doors were a lighter shade of green to make them more noticeable to partially sighted passengers.
Midland Mainline even experimented with multi-modal transport integration, providing a bus link from Kettering station to Corby (at that time not on the passenger rail network) for which through rail-bus tickets were available. Thus it was that one of the most attractive railway liveries of all found itself applied by Best Impressions not to a swish express train, but instead to the rather more homely form of a Plaxton Beaver minibus. It could be admired in some degree of comfort because the bus wasn’t always very well used. British travellers are often heard saying they’d use public transport more often if there was better integration between various modes, but it’s an uphill job to make them actually do it in practice. Train travellers, in particular, remain very snobby about the idea of getting on a bus, even a connecting one that you can buy a train ticket for (q.v. SWT’s pleasantly uncrowded Liphook to Bordon rail link bus).
Arguably, Midland Mainline epitomised what the proponents of railway privatisation said they expected privatisation to do, by bringing new commercial ideas to the market, and delivering improvements for passengers. Perhaps it was no surprise that it got the best visual identity of them all as well. Of course something that good just couldn’t last. Having increased its market to the point where the Turbostars were too small and too slow to serve it, Midland Mainline placed an order for a fleet of new longer and faster ‘Meridian’ trains. Introduced in 2004, these sported a bitty, blocky, visual identity alongside a ridiculously trendy wordmark which now looks far more dated than the first Midland Mainline logo (compare them here). The work on these new trains and new image was undertaken by Poulter Partners and Seymour Powell, and also applied to the HSTs.
The teal green went, replaced by a darker petrol blue. The tangerine stripes were replaced by white and silver angled blocks which ran uncomfortably across the train windows, and the yellow end was applied slab-like, with little respect for the lines of the train.
“Vehicles have four dimensions,” concludes Ray. “Three solid dimensions, and movement.” Midland Mainline was one of the best attempts in the privatised railway to address this particular design challenge. “If you want to be a high-speed train operator, your train should look fast standing still, and on the move,” he explains. I think we can agree Best Impressions succeeded magnificently.
Further Reading and Bibliography
Boocock, Colin (2001): Railway Liveries Privatisation 1995-2000. Ian Allen: Shepperton, Surrey
Best Impressions website, here
Seymour Powell’s case study on their Midland Mainline work, here
Design Week article on the Midland Mainline brand identity, here – but note it misrepresents Saatchi and Saatchi Design as developing the livery, when this was Best Impressions’ area of responsibility
…and anything linked to in the text above