In one small corner of the recent Design for Rail exhibition in London was something that only tangentially belonged there.
It was a sample of work from the corporate identity of Rail express systems (R.e.s.), British Rail’s last great exercise in branding and corporate identity. The R.e.s. corporate identity is notable for pre-empting graphic and typeface innovations of the privatised railway which would appear within a few years, just as much as it built on what had gone before.
The Design for Rail exhibition was primarily a retrospective of the 1988 corporate identity of British Rail’s Railfreight sector, which was created by design agency Roundel Design, as was R.e.s.’s. If remembered at all these days, the R.e.s. corporate identity is treated as an adjunct to the Railfreight identity. But in reality, it was much more than that. When it was unveiled in 1991, it was so dramatic that it shocked rail industry observers.
Its lack of recognition today has nothing to do with the quality of the work, and everything to do with rail privatisation.
Responsible: the designer who made R.e.s.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Darren Richardson, who along with John Bateson led the development of R.e.s.’s corporate identity when he was at Roundel. Today he’s creative director at Newcastle-based creative communications agency Gardiner Richardson, which he co-founded in 1998. Like several other designers who have worked for transport companies, he never particularly planned to become an expert in transport branding development, but he’s ended up never being far away from transport (“I never expected to become a train geek,” he admits).
Richardson worked as part of the design team at Roundel Design which developed the 1988 Railfreight corporate identity, before his work for R.e.s. He later moved agencies and worked on corporate identities for airlines including Delta Air lines and Cathay Pacific at Landor Associates, but if you’re a regular reader, you’ll remember him from his work overhauling the corporate identity of the Tyne and Wear Metro (see this article). Not only has Gardiner Richardson made it one of the most stylish looking metro networks in the country, but the new Metro corporate identity created a template that local passenger transport body Nexus was able to extend to its bus and ferry networks.
Richardson seems both pleased and slightly surprised when I tell him that this is one of the articles that’s been on The Beauty of Transport’s longlist for years, and that I have friends who hold the R.e.s. visual identity in the same regard I do. “R.e.s. felt like my baby,” he explains. It’s a project he had a lead role in, and was involved with from start to finish, unlike the Railfreight corporate identity.
The Railfreight corporate identity remains a favourite of many with an interest in transport design, and was based around six bold sub-sector logos on triple-grey bodies for locomotives (see this earlier article). “I worked on the Railfreight corporate identity when I started at Roundel, but the general design and the sub-sector logos had already been designed. So my role was putting together the design manual showing how it should be applied.”
Richardson also went out with photographer Christopher Ridley to shoot the promotional photos of Railfreight locomotives in their new livery. The arduous all-night shoots (“It was a real education,” Richardson recalls, with what I suspect is a degree of understatement) with complicated lighting requirements and trains being posed in specific locations, have passed into British railway promotion legend, but the results were well worth it, and were featured on calendars, posters and many other pieces of Railfreight publicity (see some in the Design for Rail exhibition catalogue, here).
It wasn’t too long after the launch of that new Railfreight corporate identity that British Rail’s Parcels sector came knocking at Roundel’s door. To understand why, we’ll need to go back over a bit of late British Rail history.
Restatement: British Rail’s Parcels sector in the late 1980s
Roundel’s new Railfreight corporate identity replaced a plain grey colour scheme that Railfreight had used since the “sectorisation” of British Rail in 1984. It was sectorisation which saw off the British Rail blue/grey corporate identity first seen in 1964. In addition to Railfreight, sectorisation saw British Rail divide itself into four other businesses, each with its own visual identity. New looks were introduced for London & South East, which quickly gave way to Network SouthEast in 1986 (see here); Provincial, which eventually became Regional Railways in 1990/91 (see here), and Intercity.
The fifth of British Rail’s five sectors was Parcels, very much its Cinderella operation. It was a kind of freight business, but one which handled traffic quite unlike that of Railfreight. Despite its name, transporting parcels on behalf of Royal Mail comprised only one part of Parcels’ activities. It also ran newspaper distribution trains, and Royal Mail letters trains, including the famous Travelling Post Office (TPO) trains, containing carriages in which postal workers sorted letters on the move as trains travelled up and down the country.
The subject of W H Auden’s poem Night Mail, the TPO carriages even had letter boxes on the side, and if you lived in a town served by a TPO, and had missed all the other postal collections for the day, you could post your First Class letter directly into a TPO at the station.
For many years Parcels had a slightly scruffy-looking fleet of blue and grey-and-blue carriages. Red TPOs had been phased out in the 1960s, apparently after the Great Train Robbery caused a rethink on the desirability of the easy identification of mail trains. There wasn’t a lot for Parcels staff to be proud of in the way their business presented itself. Nor did Parcels show itself off in a way that was likely to reassure customers, of which Royal Mail was by far the most important, that it was a modern, competent and efficient organisation.
Just as Railfreight was launching its Roundel-designed visual identity, Parcels sought and gained the permission of Royal Mail to paint its railway carriages in a version of the livery Royal Mail used on its road vehicles. Mostly Post Office red, it featured two yellow stripes along the bottom. In addition to restoring red outsides to the TPOs, it spread to a number of quite unlikely rail vehicles, far removed from the excitement of the TPOs, including some rather elderly ex-passenger multiple units converted for Parcels operations.
Subsequently, Parcels’ locomotives began to appear in red with dark grey upper bodies, using paint lines similar to those used by Railfreight’s triple grey locomotives, but without any logos applied apart from the British Rail double arrow.
Rescue: Parcels plans for survival
However, under the leadership of its director Charles Belcher, Parcels wanted to go further in its transformation, not least because the sector was fighting for its own survival. The newspaper traffic was coming to an end as national newspapers moved their printing presses out of city centres in the late 1980s. The new out-of-town print works were more efficiently served by lorries. Parcels’ reputation for carrying mail was in the doldrums, with mail trains frequently running late, hardly a business practice likely to convince Royal Mail to commit to rail transport in the long-term. British Rail had already ceased carrying Royal Mail parcels, leaving just Royal Mail letters as the main business of the Parcels sector.
Part of Belcher’s answer was a rebrand, in the hopes of emulating the transformation Railfreight had achieved. Roundel’s new Railfreight corporate identity had helped instill a new working culture at Railfreight, with most staff liking the new image and taking more pride in the operation. It had fed into better reliability and more success retaining and attracting customers. Belcher wanted the Parcels rebrand to act similarly as the springboard for a new plan for the carriage of mail by rail which would ensure it retained Royal Mail’s business. Belcher had decided on a name, Rail express systems, intended to emphasise one of the rail network’s key advantages in the movement of mail: speed. A lorry could, at best, run at 70mph but mail trains could operate at 90-110mph for mile after mile after mile.
The challenge was how to get this across in a new corporate identity designed to, “raise our profile not only externally but also internally to help cement the new team together,” as Belcher would eventually write in R.e.s.’s Design Manual.
Reshaping: Roundel works its magic
That’s where Richardson enters this story, given the lead responsibility at Roundel for transforming Parcels into its new Rail express systems guise, and projecting a new image for the business. “R.e.s. was much more mine than the Railfreight identity. There’s more of me in it,” he says. He remembers Parcels as, “A great client. Projects are only as good as the clients,” he explains. “They were willing to try new things and trusted us not to be detrimental to their business as we tried to add distinctiveness to it.”
Although apparently similar design challenges – corporate identities for non-passenger train operators – it soon became clear that Railfreight and R.e.s. needed two different approaches.
“Railfreight was all about strength,” Richardson explains, “and the focus was on the locomotive at the front of the train, because there might be any sort of wagon behind it. R.e.s. was about speed, and was designed to have pace. It was a more dynamic design,” he adds. “It built on all Roundel’s learning with the Railfreight identity but we tried something slightly different for a very different challenge.”
Unlike Railfreight’s trains, R.e.s. trains comprised vans with bodies of a similar size to that of the locomotive at the head, so presented a more homogenous image. Richardson wanted to produce a visual identity that worked all the way along the train, not just on the locomotive at the front.
It quickly becomes clear when speaking to Richardson that he is fascinated by the craft skills behind the creation of visual identities (“I learnt the fundamental principles behind great design at Roundel,” he says) and type (letter shape) design. He brought those interests to the R.e.s. corporate identity.
Unlike Railfreight’s locomotive-focussed corporate identity, R.e.s.’s would see a basically identical visual identity applied to each and all the vehicles in the train (Royal Mail vehicles, notably the Travelling Post Offices, would remain in Royal Mail colours, with a small R.e.s. logo applied). Rather than introducing yet another new set of colours, Richardson stuck with the existing red and grey colours of the Parcels locomotives, but bent the upper grey band downwards at 90-degrees about three-quarters of the way along, where it flowed into the R.e.s. logo, the most obvious feature of which was four pale blue blocks of colour. The angled grey band and logo were repeated all the way along the train, on locomotives and carriages/vans alike. It was applied the same way round (upper grey band on the right end of the vehicle), ensuring that even if individual vehicles were turned, the same pattern was repeated all the way along the train. The end result was a startling creation, firstly for its obvious asymmetry, with the left end of R.e.s.’s vehicles being plain red; and secondly for its abstractness.
While the asymmetry might seem less radical to today’s eyes, accustomed to years of graphical flamboyance on the privatised railway, it was utterly shocking at the time. I can remember one railway magazine publishing the first picture of a R.e.s.-liveried locomotive with a write-up that suggested the corporate identity must not yet be fully applied, so unusual was its appearance. “There was a definite influence from [German art school] Bauhaus as well as Russian avant-garde designers Lizzitzky and Chernikhov,” Richardson says, going some way to explaining why it seemed so different to what had gone before.
Unlike most previous railway liveries seen in Britain, where stripes of colour ran the full length of locomotives, Richardson’s design for R.e.s. gave its trains a distinctive, almost rhythmic, appearance. “It was designed to break up the train, so it wasn’t just one long thing,” he explains. “Those breaks give the train an individual identity with energy and attitude.” Richardson’s interest in type design becomes clear here; the train is broken up like words in a sentence, with text areas (where the grey bands run) and blank spaces (where the bodyside is red). Where a letter shape might have a descender, the vehicles in a R.e.s. train had the angled grey band and the R.e.s. logo.
While the Railfreight sub-sector logos were stylised representation of the commodity carried by the sub-sector, R.e.s.’s logo had no immediately obvious link to postal services. It’s a logo that people tend to read their own meanings into. I’ve seen it explained as representing packages (Boocock , 2000), letterbox slots, and an eagle’s wings (here). None of them are strictly what Richardson intended.
Roundel’s Railfreight logos had famously been inspired by aircraft markings, in particular the square-shaped red and white insignia of the Polish air force (see here). Such markings still informed Roundel and Richardson’s thinking for R.e.s., though it was the roundel of the US Air Force which was one of his key inspirations, with its central star and stripes on either side. Translated into the R.e.s. logo, this became blue flashes flanking, well, what?
Although many people didn’t spot it at first, the R.e.s. logo contains a ‘+’ sign quite deliberately formed from the negative space at its heart. “It was a way of saying that this is about something more. There are shapes that are deep seeded memory structures which we subliminally understand the meaning of,” he explains, and the ‘+’ symbol is one such example. Part of the reason the R.e.s. logo was more abstract than those of Railfreight’s subsectors was that, even though it was repeated all the way along R.e.s. trains, it was never intended to be as much of a focal point as the Railfreight sub-sector logos. This was because the R.e.s. visual identity was intended to work holistically, across an entire train.
Other elements were carried over from Roundel’s earlier work on the Railfreight identity. The concept of individual depot plaques, popular amongst staff allocated to those depots, was retained. But instead of being contained within black-painted diamonds, Crewe Diesel Depot’s leaping cat and Crewe Electric Depot’s eagle were freed to become polished metal silhouettes without backgrounds. “We didn’t want the depot plate to distract from the overall livery,” says Richardson, “which needed to reflect the express look I was aiming for; it made the depot plates an integral part of the design.”
Reset: Frutiger replaces Rail Alphabet
A desire for freedom, lightness and speed also informed what was perhaps the most controversial element of the R.e.s. visual identity: the decision to use Frutiger as R.e.s.’s corporate typeface throughout – even on trains and signage – rather than the more familiar Rail Alphabet. Rail Alphabet had been British Rail’s corporate typeface since 1964 and had been retained even in Roundel’s new corporate identity for Railfreight.
Richardson laughs when I suggest that maybe he was the man who killed Rail Alphabet, and that in doing so he set the trend for the privatised railway to adopt a range of different typefaces. “I knew you’d ask me about that, because it came up at the Design for Rail exhibition. Someone said to me, Darren, why on earth did you use Frutiger?”
Richardson collects his thoughts, and tries to put a complex set of feelings into words. “I remember there were a lot of conversations about the typeface. We just wanted to create a more distinctive typographic style that would complement the strong graphic language of the identity without compromising its practical requirements.”
Frutiger felt like the obvious choice for a number of reasons. Its creator, Adrian Frutiger, worked carefully on the letterforms so that characters and words could be recognised at small sizes and even in poor light conditions or on the move. This, combined with its bold character, made it the perfect fit for a dynamic, fast-paced brand blending both form and function.
In these terms, the decision to move away from Rail Alphabet isn’t entirely surprising. Typeface-designing genius Margaret Calvert (who Richardson clearly has enormous respect for) designed Rail Alphabet primarily for signage with the railway station environment, where passengers have time to read signs carefully. Frutiger is easier to read at speed, letters like the ‘e’ and ‘s’, which appear regularly in the name, have open apertures creating a greater sense of movement.
Richardson was also responsible for the unconventional way the company’s name was displayed, “Rail express systems” with only the R capitalised. “We wanted to add pace to the logotype and stop it looking to static. It also reflected the desire for a more contemporary images and the business unbuttoning its collar from the traditional as well as utilitarian Rail Alphabet,” he explains.
No railway corporate identity is about just painting some trains, or at least, it shouldn’t be, though some privatised train operators seem to have come close to treating it as such. A well-planned corporate identity spreads across the whole business. Richardson designed applications of the R.e.s. corporate identity for media as diverse as stationery, newspaper adverts, road vehicles, uniforms, ties, mugs, pens, and depot way-finding signage.
This was a corporate identity exercise that staff were supposed to buy into. Belcher needed all his staff to commit to his new version of the company if they were going to make it perform well enough to convince Royal Mail to stay with rail transport. Richardson remembers the engineers at the depots being particularly enthusiastic over his depot signage. Inspired by a project he’d done at art college using polystyrene blocks, Richardson reimagined the R.e.s. depot signage as three-dimensional objects, and the constructed nature of the signs had particular appeal to the engineers.
Everything went into the R.e.s. Design Manual. If you’ve seen the beautifully reprinted British Rail Corporate Identity Manual, you’ll know the sort of thing to expect. But Richardson confides that he wanted even the Design Manual for R.e.s. to be an object with artistic integrity in its own right, not just a set of technical guidelines.
It has to be said that it’s a genuinely beautiful document. The front cover features a laser cut metal version of the R.e.s. logo and the section dividers feature bold photography. There are countless other little touches that bring to life what might otherwise be a dry document. The explanation of Frutiger as the new corporate typeface (as seen earlier) uses excerpts from Auden’s Night Mail. A section on R.e.s. branded promotional items (mugs, ties, badges) is illustrated with photos, but finished with the word “Pen”, and an arrow which points to the physical R.e.s. pen included in the Design Manual.
Resurgence: R.e.s. unveils Railnet
The new Rail Express Systems corporate identity was officially launched in April 1991, and R.e.s. got down to business negotiating with Royal Mail for the future carriage of mail by rail. R.e.s. proposed a new network for parcels and mail traffic, to be called “Railnet”. A fleet of 100mph-capable parcel multiple units (the Class 325s) would be procured to replace some of R.e.s.’s oldest mail vans. Railnet would also see parcels and mail trains, traditionally loaded at platforms in passenger stations, move to dedicated Railnet terminals in new locations. This would also substantially reduce the time-consuming shunting manoeuvres R.e.s. vans required when using passenger stations. In London, a vast new mail station at Willesden, the Princess Royal Distribution Centre, was planned. In 1993 R.e.s. signed a new 13-year contract with Royal Mail; three years to get Railnet up and running, and 10 years of the new operation.
With the application of the new R.e.s. corporate identity spreading across the business, one of R.e.s.’s early publicity initiatives was to name several of its locomotives with names which began with “Res”, such as Resolute and Resourceful (a fuller list can be found here).
No corporate identity survives first contact with the real world, unfortunately, and the R.e.s. corporate identity was on occasion adapted in ways not accounted for by the R.e.s. Design Manual. Its most unusual application came on the Royal Train, the operation of which R.e.s. had inherited in one of BR’s occasional reshuffles of responsibility, along with other charter trains. Using the traditional claret base colour of the Royal Train instead of red, the R.e.s. logo was applied in the form of a giant cast plate in grey and white, underneath the offset grey upper body typical of a R.e.s. locomotive. Richardson says the design was nothing to do with him, and in fact he hadn’t even been aware of it until I asked, so it must have been developed in-house.
Rescinding: The R.e.s. corporate identity comes to an end
The new (conventional) R.e.s. visual identity continued to spread across the business, and for a while all seemed to be going well. But in the background, politics was militating against the R.e.s. corporate identity, and its roll-out came to a crashing halt in 1994 as the British railway network was privatised. It was only three years since the R.e.s. corporate identity had been launched.
In 1995, R.e.s. (and its Royal Mail contract work) was sold to American railfreight operator Wisconsin Central, which would subsequently buy up most of the rest of the British railfreight businesses. It brought its own corporate identity across from America, rebadged as English, Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS). All Richardson’s careful work was abandoned. Thanks to the slow speed of rail vehicle repainting, it had always been unusual to see a full train in R.e.s. colours even before privatisation, and there would often be at least one or two vehicles in older colours. Nevertheless, a surprising amount of work had been achieved in applying the R.e.s. corporate identity to trains, signage and depots. But in truth, the R.e.s. corporate identity never had a proper chance to establish itself. That, and the fact that R.e.s. was a smaller business than Railfreight, go some way to explaining why it has never been as well-known a piece of work as Roundel’s Railfreight corporate identity.
Richardson comes across as a modest man, but you can tell that the curtailed life of the R.e.s. corporate identity – his baby – rankles with him. Not so much because he feels he hasn’t had the personal recognition he deserves, more that the work itself was never given a proper chance.
Resignation: EWS’s mail business founders
EWS didn’t have much luck with its ex-R.e.s. division. At first, things seemed to be going well. Railnet launched in 1996, with the Princess Royal Distribution Centre opening in London, and mail handling vanishing from passenger railway stations as the dedicated Railnet terminals opened around the country. It looked like a positive move when EWS ordered a fleet of 30 new 125mph capable locomotives (the Class 67s) suitable for fast mail operation. Commissioning began in 1999 but proved troublesome, and it was 2001 before they were passed for 125mph running.
In the meantime, the punctuality of Railnet services remained stubbornly below the target level R.e.s. had contracted to with Royal Mail. EWS’s mail division was struggling with old, unreliable locomotives and rolling stock, and the fact that passenger trains were given priority in the event of any service disruption. Before the new Class 67s had even been fully certified came a hammer blow; one from which the ex-R.e.s. operation would never recover. The Hatfield train crash of October 2000 led to the subsequent “meltdown” of the railway network as infrastructure owner Railtrack was forced to admit it had no idea what condition its railway tracks were actually in. Until the tracks could be properly checked, swingeing speed restrictions were imposed at any location where gauge corner cracking, the rail defect which had led to the Hatfield crash, might present a risk. Trains slowed to a crawl, the mail trains amongst them.
Resection: Royal Mail cuts rail movements
Royal Mail, already concerned over mail train punctuality affecting the fulfillment of its First Class next day delivery promise, lost patience with EWS. In 2002, it announced that TPO operations would cease. The vehicles would soon need replacing and Royal Mail was unconvinced that it was worth the cost. In 2003, it announced that it was also pulling the plug on its contract with EWS for the remaining pre-sorted letter traffic. EWS’s ex-R.e.s. division was dead.
The Class 325s were mothballed, despite being only a few years old. The Class 67s had little of the work their high top speed qualified them for, except for the odd charter train.
Residuum: the legacy of the R.e.s. corporate identity
Royal Mail eventually came back to the railways, in a much more limited manner, with pre-sorted mail being transported from London to the north of the country, but this time with a different railfreight operator, GB Railfreight. The Class 325s were brought out of storage and are still running. The contract was subsequently won back by EWS’s successor DB, and the Class 325s are still Royal Mail red. But that’s about the only link the current mail on rail operation has with R.e.s., and the visual identity Richardson created for it. The Princess Royal Distribution Centre handles far fewer train movements than it was designed for, and many of the other Railnet terminals around the county have been closed.
Roundel and Richardson’s corporate identity for R.e.s. was so short-lived it has been all but forgotten, and the Design for Rail exhibition was a rare chance for it to make itself better known to design enthusiasts more familiar with Roundel’s work for Railfreight. The R.e.s. Design Manual also featured in Unit Edition’s Manuals 2, one of an occasional series of publications featuring corporate identity design guides. Liveries Unleashed offers a startling art print based on the R.e.s. locomotive livery, its asymmetry working particularly well as an artwork.
Those rare outings aside, the R.e.s. Design Manual and the corporate identity it details seem almost unknown today. As far as I can tell, the National Railway Museum doesn’t even hold a copy of the R.e.s. Design Manual in its collection.
R.e.s. was British Rail’s last full rebranding exercise, and it could have been remembered as something of the quality of Railfreight’s, if only privatisation hadn’t curtailed it so soon. It’s a body of work Richardson remains proud of though, and if the manual now sits on his shelf as a reminder of what might have been, he hasn’t rested on his railway design laurels. He’s currently putting together a crowd-funding bid for a book about the Tyne & Wear Metro’s corporate identity (sign me up right now). Amongst its wide variety of other work, Gardiner Richardson recently won the contract to handle the communications campaigns of London-Sunderland/Bradford open access train operator Grand Central.
“For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?” asks Auden in the last line of Night Mail. Thanks to the R.e.s. corporate identity, Roundel and Richardson occupy an important place in the history of British Rail design. And personally, I’m rather glad Richardson hasn’t entirely left being “a train geek” behind.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Boocock, Colin (2000): Railway Liveries: BR Traction 1948-1991. Shepperton: Ian Allan
Anything linked to in the text above.
Enjoyed this article?
It’s one in a series looking at the way that the changing appearance of Britain’s railway illustrates its 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 – )
- Red Hot (Virgin Trains East Coast branding, 2015- )