In years to come, we might well look back at Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) as one of the last great branding exercises on the privatised railway. Along with Great Western Railway and TransPennine Express (which followed shortly afterwards), it represents a bookend of the truly privatised railway, at the end of a history that started with the distinctive visual identities applied at South West Trains, Midland Mainline and GNER in the late 1990s.
Twenty years later, infrastructure operator Network Rail is officially nationalised, the DfT calls the shots of the rail industry financially, several franchises are actually tightly specified concessions, and things have reached the stage where the DfT is even defining the branding of train operations. Recent franchise brandings have all featured small areas of colour applied on top of the plain all-over grey that is the DfT’s preferred option for train exteriors. The creation of “Partnership” franchises operating under what the DfT says will be a “unified brand” (see p37 of the DfT’s latest rail strategy, here), suggests all-over grey will be the new order.
Until that particular ideological cycle comes to an end, we’re unlikely to see anything again like the red and white wonders which started operating up and down the East Coast Main Line on Monday 2 March 2015, and which look just as thrilling today, long after the initial novelty has worn off.
The branding of VTEC has been overseen by Virgin Trains group design manager Sam Jessup. A graphic designer by training, he started off in a design company in America which handled a number of transport companies as clients. The transport bug has bitten hard, as it often does, and his next job was as a single-handed in-house designer for Virgin Trains (then operating only its West Coast franchise). He built up a small team of designers there before being drafted into a Stagecoach/Virgin joint venture team in 2014, bidding for the rights to run what seemed at that point like an almost cursed East Coast franchise.
He was a good choice, a designer committed to the best in transport branding and design. Outside of work, Sam runs Liveries Unleashed, which produces art prints based on classic transport visual identities. He also writes for the always insightful TransportDesigned, an online transport design and branding news and features website (recommended reading if you’re not doing so already). He can frequently be found on Twitter (@samjessupdesign) sharing his thoughts on transport branding, and being one of the few people there who are actually qualified to do so. A few weeks ago, I borrowed him from TransportDesigned for a couple of hours, and asked him to talk me through the story of the VTEC branding.
By 2014, the inter-city East Coast franchise had seen two operators (GNER and National Express) give up halfway through their contracts, and had been run as a public sector operation by the DfT’s “operator of last resort” Directly Operated Railways since 2009. East Coast Trains’ uninspiring visual identity – mostly grey, of course – was covered in this earlier article. Virgin in particular was desperate to get its hands on the inter-city East Coast franchise, having been beaten to it several times before, and in one case having an entire franchise competition collapse on it after it introduced a left-field high-speed line proposal, an idea which then-franchising body the Strategic Rail Authority proved completely unable to cope with.
“I loved it,” says Sam of his experience on the inter-city East Coast bid team. “Ads, liveries, seats, stations – I was adding the Virgin-ness to them in the bid documentation. It was so fast-paced, but it was a blank canvas and I could just pitch my own ideas.”
Beating off a highly fancied bid from Keolis/Eurostar, Virgin was awarded the franchise at the end of November 2014. The new franchise would start at the beginning of March the following year, leaving Sam with just 12 weeks to turn the outline branding concepts he had developed during the bidding process into a reality. And just to add to the time pressure, one of those weeks was Christmas/New Year…
At Virgin Trains’ West Coast operation, Sam and his team have been responsible for pretty much all the signage, posters and leaflets you’ll ever have come across on trains or at stations. He (perhaps slightly reluctantly) admits that he’ll probably always be most famous for the “Please don’t flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet” signs which first appeared adorning the toilet lids of Virgin’s Pendolino fleet.
They’ve proved wildly popular, and have spread to other Virgin and Stagecoach train operations. They were even translated by the organisers of the Sochi Winter Olympics for the toilet facilities there – and there can’t be many pieces of transport design that have a had a cultural impact like that. Perhaps more salubriously, Sam also wrapped the Pendolinos’ on-train toilet walls with a giant picture of a Virgin hot air balloon floating over a field of poppies, instantly transforming this frequently grim environment into something a lot more pleasant. Both moves reflect a Virgin “tone” that parent company Virgin Holdings is keen to keep consistent across its various interests. So as well as reporting internally to management within Virgin Trains, Sam also has a secondary reporting line to Virgin Holdings too, ensuring that Virgin Trains is matching the tone of other Virgin companies.
One of Sam’s first jobs at East Coast Trains was to prepare the existing design team there for their new life as a Virgin-branded company (although Virgin has only a 10% stake in VTEC with Stagecoach holding the other 90%, Virgin is recognised as a long-distance inter-city train brand thanks to its long tenure on the West Coast). Having saved London-Edinburgh train services from not one, but two franchise collapses, most East Coast staff were extremely protective of the brand they had built up, however underwhelming it might have seemed to the outside world. Even passengers had got used to the fact that East Coast Trains meant basic competence; not to be underrated after the short and financially chaotic tenures of GNER’s second franchise and National Express. But Virgin was the future, and Sam had to convert the East Coast Trains design team to a new way of communicating.
“The Virgin brand is both an opportunity and a challenge,” he reflects. “It gives you something to live up to, because people know what they expect from Virgin. But it also means you have to meet those expectations.”
East Coast Trains had a traditional railway manner in its communications, but Virgin’s are more colloquial, pitched more at the level of its customers. Sam gave what was soon to be the VTEC design team freedom to work on converting all the posters, leaflets and timetables to the Virgin idiom, once he had explained the tone of voice needed. That helped them take ownership of the new brand. In the meantime, there were some other big decisions to be made.
First up, what to call the new operation? Virgin Trains East Coast does what it says, but also eased passengers and staff over from the East Coast Trains brand to which they had built up loyalty. “It’s not always been easy later on though,” Sam muses. “It can make VTEC sound like a subsidiary of West Coast [which is branded simply “Virgin Trains”] even though it very much isn’t!” In fact, for franchise re-letting processes, both business are run as completely separate entities despite sharing the Virgin brand and advertising campaigns.
The next job was to decide on the external appearance of the trains. He doesn’t agree with the often-expressed view that passengers don’t care what the exterior of their trains looks like provided the trains are on time. “Stations aren’t going to change very much with the start of a new franchise,” explains Sam, “so the trains bring the brand alive. We knew that when a branded VTEC train pulled in, it would be the key differentiator between the past and the future.”
Even in 2014/15, the DfT was already pursuing its whatever-colour-you-want-provided-it’s-grey strategy for train branding. The successful East Coast franchise bidder had the option of using the existing grey East Coast Trains branding, and the DfT made it clear that was its preferred option.
“But how could you do that as Virgin?” Sam asks. “The whole point of Virgin companies is that they look and feel like Virgin companies”. So VTEC had to spend £5m to rebrand its train exteriors (see here), believing in the power of the Virgin brand to attract additional revenue to make up for it. Even then, VTEC was only allowed to alter the exterior of its trains with vinyl, ensuring they could be restored to the East Coast identity at some future time if required.
“Our first thought was to add some Virgin red to the East Coast grey,” Sam recalls. “But new managing director David Horne was clear that we needed to make more impact than that. His view was that if East Coast passengers don’t know Virgin, we have to excite them and show them that things aren’t going to be same – and that’s a good thing!”
The VTEC transition team called on the talents of London-based transport design agency Best Impressions and its creative director Ray Stenning (both of whom make regular appearances on the pages of this website). “We wanted to make a bigger impact in a shorter time than any franchise had ever done before,” says Sam. So, under extreme time pressure, Best Impressions worked to develop a new look for VTEC’s two fleets of trains, the electric Intercity 225s and the diesel-powered Intercity 125s, the latter a transport icon in their own right. All involved agreed that the 225s had never looked better than in their initial British Rail Intercity colours, seen below.
The new VTEC branding paid tribute to that, not least in what Ray delights in calling the “Mask of Zorro”: black bands around the driving cab windows which are a contemporary and curvaceous take on the Intercity original. The Zorro mask doesn’t suit the lines of the 125 cabs though, so it was omitted. As Ray points out, “You have to respect the architecture of the vehicle.”
Various iterations of the VTEC visual identity were worked through, including some more angular versions early on, and also visual references to Virgin’s West Coast Pendolino and Voyager trains. Ultimately, the curves of the Virgin logo drove the development of a curvy visual identity which runs the full length of trains. Curved red sections span the joins between carriages, while the main bodies are silver-white, with neon-effect white stripes separating the two areas. The direction of the curved red sections reverses over the buffet car, visually separating the standard class portion of the train from first class, and making the buffet car easy to spot too. First class carriages feature a pair of parallel purple lines to further mark them out, plus purple (1) roundels on the passenger doors.
Look carefully and you’ll notice the Virgin logo only on the first and last vehicles in the train. Intermediate carriages don’t sport it, and this is quite deliberate. “We see our trains as a whole,” explains Sam. “We save the Virgin logo for that moment of the train’s arrival or departure. It’s an idea we brought over from the Pendolinos on West Coast. The power of the Virgin brand means we don’t need to overuse the logo, the boldness of the livery and the use of red and white tells you exactly what this is.” It also means the colours and shapes aren’t broken up by logos on intermediate carriages, lending an almost hypnotic quality to the branding when a VTEC train passes by at speed, catching the eye. Again, it’s a deliberate choice, integral to Best Impressions’ design.
With just eight weeks to go until the VTEC franchise launch, the design was handed over to vinyl experts Stewart Signs to print, ready to wrap the first train. Using vinyls allowed VTEC to wrap its entire train fleet within a year, one of the fastest fleet rebrands ever seen on the privatised railway. The only downside is that vinyls don’t last as well as paint, and if you look at a VTEC train today you’ll probably find the vinyl join lines looking more obvious than they did when first applied, as the trains have weathered over time.
Sam, however, is still pleased with the effect. “We did something iconic, and unlike anything anyone else had done. It divided opinion and I really enjoyed that. Design should generate conversation, though hopefully not controversy. And passengers are used to it now. They even ask the on-train staff what’s going on when we put a non-VTEC liveried train on their service as a substitute.” So maybe passengers take more notice of their train exteriors than is sometimes believed.
Of course, brand is about more than just exterior branding. On-board staff all went on training days to learn the Virgin way of doing things, giving themselves permission to sort problems out for passengers using their initiative on the day, and knowing that they would be supported in this by managers.
The inside of trains is just as important a contribution to a train operator’s brand as the outside. The last time the interiors of the East Coast 125s and 225s had been significantly refreshed was in the early 2000s, by GNER. Although all the 125s and most of the 225s are due to be replaced within a few years, VTEC spent £21m (see here) on a refurbishment programme to bring them up to a standard which would meet passengers’ expectation of a Virgin-branded operation. The difference between GNER’s and VTEC’s brand is neatly illustrated by the name of the two carriage interior refurbishment programmes. GNER’s was called Project Mallard, drawing on the history of the railway but tending towards the slightly pompous. VTEC’s was called Plush Tush.
The difference carried over into the on-board signage. Toilet “engaged” signs were replaced by “occupied” signs as Sam and his team tried to remove unnecessary railway terminology in favour of the way humans actually speak. Signage is lettered in Neo Sans, a Virgin standard typeface, as are vehicle exteriors. Carpets and seat moquettes in standard class were replaced as Sam tried to bring the “flow” of the train exteriors to the inside, working with industrial design agency Atlantic Design. The carpet, for example, has a strong linear element.
First Class, however, is where VTEC had the opportunity to create a truly “Virgin” interior. “I was really inspired by [airline] Virgin Atlantic,” explains Sam, “with its purple mood lighting. I wanted that all over, though in the end we used it just down the centre of the ceilings. And I wanted purple leather seats at first, but then we realised that purple was connected too strongly with the East Coast Trains branding. So we decided on grey leather with red flashes. We incorporated trends from the sports car industry in the seat cover design. I wanted First Class to feel like you were doing 1,000mph – even if you were just pulling out of Newark Northgate!” Curtains with metallic threads incorporated into the material add to the glamour feel.
Sam’s design attention has now moved to the replacement for VTEC’s existing train fleet, the Hitachi-built “Azuma” trains (or Class 800/801, or Intercity Express Trains, if you prefer the more official terminologies). These were ordered by the government, rather than the train operators, and so arrived in DfT-mandated pale grey.
The name “Azuma” is an old Japanese term for “East”, reflecting the trains’ workplace on the East Coast Main Line but also paying tribute to their manufacturer, Japanese company Hitachi. In Japan, the concept of ‘kōhaku’ translates as ‘red and white’, but has a meaning which relates to the mixing of the concepts of life and vitality (red) with purity (white). The two colours, when applied together, denote happiness, celebration and good future fortune.
No wonder that Sam’s external branding for the Azuma test train, which was unveiled in March 2016, uses a white base with red cloth-effect vinyls swirling across the carriage ends, and down to sharply drawn points at the nose. Perhaps kōhaku also adds to the happiness on VTEC’s current fleet too.
As to what the inside and outside of the production Azuma units are going to look like, we’ll have to wait until next year to find out. It’s under wraps for now. Since I spoke to Sam, the DfT has announced that an “East Coast Partnership” will replace the existing VTEC franchise from 2020, and this will surely add another dimension to the branding challenge.
Away from the East Coast Main Line, Virgin is currently bidding with Stagecoach and French state railway SNCF for the new West Coast Partnership franchise, which will include the introduction of services on the first section of High Speed 2. If the DfT specifies the branding too closely, Sam worries how much Virgin will be able to bring to the operation. “You can’t have Virgin running something but there be no Virgin branding applied. Virgin exists through its branding, it’s how customers know what kind of experience they will be getting.”
Although there are plenty of people calling for the re-nationalisation of Britain’s railways, the truth is they’ve probably never been under such direct government control as they are now. The exercise of branding VTEC’s train fleets illustrates the DfT’s increasing role in specifying all aspects of how the railways are run. The future, I suspect, holds a lot more plain trains both inside and out. Given the flair that Virgin has repeatedly proved it can bring to train services, that seems a real shame.
Bibliography and further reading
Best Impressions’ website features its work on VTEC’s branding, here
…and anything linked to in the text above.
Thanks to Sam for generously giving up his time, without which this article could not have been written
Enjoyed this article?
It’s one in a series looking at the way that the changing appearance of Britain’s railways illustrates their history. Here are the others:
- Lions and Wheels (British Railways’ lion emblems, 1949-1964)
- The Full XP (British Railways’ Corporate Identity 1964-1986, part 1)
- The Decline and Fall of the Rail Blue Empire (British Railways’ corporate identity 1964-1986, part 2)
- Three Shades of Grey (Railfreight 1987 corporate identity, Roundel Design Group, UK)
- The Rolling Art Galleries of Network SouthEast (Edward Pond murals and NSE route badges)
- The Train on Kaleidoscope Lines (British Passenger Railway Post-Privatisation Visual Identities)
- Mainlining Style (Midland Mainline visual identity 1996-2004)
- Along the Line, Blue and Gold (GNER’s corporate visual identity, Vignelli Associates, 1997)
- Papering Over the Cracks (Railtrack’s Corporate Graphic Design and Annual Reports, UK)
- They Used to Shout our Name, Now they Whisper it (Railtrack’s Corporate Graphic Design and Annual Reports, UK, part 2)
- The Dead Hand of State Design (State-Sponsored Visual Identities on Britain’s Railway, 2000 – )
- Local Heroes (PTE Mainline Rail Visual Identities 1970-1994)
- Don’t Give in to Their Goodbyes, Northern Stars (PTE Mainline Rail Visual Identities 1995-2017)
- Corporatisation, and its Undoing, Part 1 (Visual Identities of Britain’s ‘Big Five’ Transport Operators on the railway, 1997 – )
- Corporatisation, and its Undoing, Part 2 (Visual Identities of Britain’s ‘Big Five’ Transport Operators on the railway, 1997 – )