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British Rail must take back control The ‘British Rail Corporate Identity Manual’

All aboard. (SSPL/Getty Images)


August 10, 2022   5 mins

If Brexit taught us anything, it’s that a sentimental yearning for the past underpins Global Britain’s sense of its own adorable character. And the brilliant thing about Great British Nostalgia is that it belongs to all of us — not just to Tories, expats and those flag-draped weirdos clutching teddy bears at Last Night of the Proms.

Yet somehow the perception is that nostalgia is the sole province of xenophobes. Well “newsflash”, as we used to say. Those of us on the Left also become more nostalgic as we get older. We too mourn the past. So, at a time of mounting scepticism about the public finance model for our denationalised industries, I commend this bible of calm rationalism: the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual.

The Manual, like the actual Bible, doesn’t need to be read linearly. It’s best experienced immersively, as a trove of browsable scripture. Oh, spoiler alert: both British Rail and the Bible end badly. One in terrifying madness, with everything destroyed by rapacious monsters, the other in a poorly-written Book of Revelation.

The Manual is a beautiful, heartbreaking anthology of design guides issued by BR between 1965 and 1970, the coolest and most swinging period in our modern social history. We had a proper Old Labour government, for a start. We had the Pill and the Mini and rising wages thanks to strong unions headed by people who sounded like us. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was groovy heaven. The Beatles were turning us on, reinventing the future, in those long summery five years from Rubber Soul to Let It Be. The Open University was launched, decades before the internet made remote learning universally dull. Brutalist masterpieces redefined civic space and, along with atheism and cohabitation and drugs and whatnot, it really irritated older people, which made everything so much funnier.

We were a railway household in those days. My dad started as a fitter with British Railways after the war, and ended up working at British Rail’s new-look Euston during its modernisation. He revered The Euston Concourse as others revere St Peter’s Square; VIPs using the same space as the proles. I remember with affection Euston’s pristine egalitarian public space, yet to be slathered in shrieking adverts, yet to succumb to the inevitable rash of franchise buboes. God, I can even remember when the toilets were free.

We were passengers then, not customers. Passenger traffic, not just technical modernisation, drove the new-look BR. For the first time in the history of British railways, passengers had replaced freight as the main source of business; the company had to present itself as a legible, people-centred organisation. How refreshing it all seems today, when a privatised industry treats passengers as freight.

Also — nostalgia klaxon — it’s worth remembering that we weren’t “in Europe” at the time. BR’s assertive corporate identity was a cheerfully patriotic act. Tony Howard, former Head of Design for British Rail, was rightly proud of bringing sleek coherence to a post-Beeching railway system employing an army of 400,000 employees. “The Manual was designed to be a working tool,” he said. “It set the standard for how large corporate identities are implemented but more importantly how they are controlled”. Oh yeah, national identity, taking back control, wasn’t that a thing recently? Seriously, how come we’ve Brexited into a reality where two-thirds of the public support renationalisation yet 70% of our rail companies are currently owned by European states?

The re-creation of the Manual was a recent labour of love by graphic artist Wallace Henning, who assembled all these volumes of meticulous ring-bound sheets of corporate guidelines — the branding, livery, uniforms, minutiae and miscellany — initially via Kickstarter. Gathered together in a single book, they add up to more than just a quaint historical document. There’s something so utterly confident, so obliteratingly modern about the typefaces, fonts, logos and signage, even if sometimes the typographic notes sound a bit Mervyn Peake — “Where it is impossible to obtain typefaces of the Univers range the following are acceptable alternatives for text setting: Monotype Grotesque 215, Grotesque Bold 216, and Haas Type Foundary’s Neue Haas Grotesque Medium…” Gerald Barney’s iconic double-arrow logo, literally drawn on the back of an envelope on the Tube in to work, is everywhere. And very precisely commanded: “Note that the outer arrows broaden slightly towards their tips. If incorrectly drawn parallel they appear to taper outwards.” Like entasis in Classical architecture, where they fattened columns a bit in the middle to correct an optical illusion.

And oh my word ladies and gents, the Sixties uniforms. My mates and I may have been mincing about in ridiculous jumble-sale clothes on the last train home from Southend Victoria, but in the real world of public-sector service, British Rail staff looked sharp. The guards and train drivers in their worsted serge with silver buttons are the very picture of amiable Stalinism. As for the illustration of the female courier’s uniform, and the female courier within, well. She looks as impossibly chic to me now as she would have looked to me then, in her tailored jacket in worsted fine twill with semi-fit front, straight back and side hacking vents, flared skirt just above the knee, white poplin blouse finished with a kite-shaped cravat, and the sense behind that modest gaze of someone who reads Harold Robbins novels. Pretty sure I never encountered a British Rail courier; I would definitely have remembered.

When the Manual appeared in 2016 it was an instant hit with graphics geeks and font fetishists. I lack the technical expertise to appreciate it fully on those terms. For me, it’s a wormhole to a period I experienced as a teenager, when I could only gaze at the British Rail Catering Menu on Liverpool Street station and dream of a Tartan Plate for seven shillings and sixpence (“Entrecôte steak, fried egg, tomato, chips, roll and butter”). Or when, boarding a train, I’d scan the carriage windows for those clear of “No Smoking” or “Ladies Only” stickers. The new corporate identity offered a public domain of clarity, guiding us through a world of Newspapers, Cigarettes and Sweets. The signage and pictograms remain of course, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile. The rest is dust on the wind. Honestly, I wish I could remember being on a train back then and luxuriating in the knowledge that it was publicly owned. All I can remember is taking it for granted, which in a way I suppose is how we lost it. The last updates to the guidelines seem to have been issued in 1979-80, when it all still looked just as modern as it did in 1965. After 1979, for obvious reasons, our nationalised railway’s days were numbered.

As a book recommendation, the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual is, I concede, a far cry from Ulysses, that go-to, must-read Citizen Kane of books. Except weirdly the two books do have a resonance. “If Dublin were to be destroyed,” Joyce once drawled, rather grandly, “Ulysses could be used to rebuild it brick by brick.” It’s a glorious thought that we may one day awake from the paralysing hypnosis of battery-capitalism voodoo and say wait, where are we, what is this shit, is our public realm really best managed by succulent perma-tanned pirates with off-shore fortunes and excellent government contacts? Or indeed by other country’s governments?

And we will say to ourselves, no. No, it bloody well isn’t. And if we ever did decide to take back control and have a regulated, accountable, affordable public transport system, here’s a blueprint for what a railway should look like. Modern. Stylish. Ours.


Ian Martin is a writer and a producer known for The Thick of It, In The Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin. 

IanMartin

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Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

What a wonderful insight into the leftist mind. A paean to form – flash uniforms and incredible graphic design. Beautifully worded insults – “succulent perma tanned pirates,” – marvellous.

Is it possible to imagine a teenager, high on hormones and beer, gripping a train seat and whispering “I own this, nay, we the people, own this.” It seems so!

Of course not a word about efficiency, financing, modern technical innovation, Spanish practices, Union/management structure or anything else that might actually be pertinent to a serious discussion about renationalisation.

I traveled a lot on trains in the 70,s. None of this description is recognisable to me. I wouldn’t be against re-nationalisation on principle, the current system is clearly dysfunctional, but let’s have an intelligent debate.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

You sound smug

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

No, he probably suffered years of commuting for hours every day and the strikes and delays. Ice on the points, sheep on the tracks, wet leaves on the tracks, fire on the track verges, and the rest. Dirty seats, chewing gum stuck everywhere etc. Today though… a discussion is definitely needed.

jim peden
jim peden
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Melvin

I remember a fire on my commute from Stratford to Liverpool Street. The announcement went: ‘there’s a track fire so we’ll be stopping for safety reasons’. The train made the obligatory stop at the red signal and my window was right next to the fire. We sat there for a while admiring the flames.
I wouldn’t recommend re-nationalisation. But maybe some other route that didn’t involve private monopolies.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  jim peden

My favourite commuter memory is of a brick being thrown at an intercity on that line. The strengthened window just shattered leaving the 4 people sat at the table next to it covered in tiny bits of glass and next to a howling gale.

Nothing was said for several minutes until one said “getting a bit chilly” and they all moved off.

Made me proud to be British.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Melvin

To be honest, my 70’s rail travel was largely to and from Uni or football matches. My post privatisation travel was commuting.

I can’t honestly prefer one over the other in terms of reliability, cleanliness or overcrowding. The smartness or otherwise of train staff, and the fonts on timetables, made no impression at all.

The main bug bear now is price, which is becoming comparable with air travel from one end of the country to the other. Ridiculous! In the 70’s I could fund trotting round the country after my football team from a paper round.

Last edited 1 year ago by Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Smug? What an odd comment. The primary point was that the left is often beautifully articulate but rarely practical. Obviously arguable, but I’m struggling to see where smug would come from.

Tim F
Tim F
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

in principle?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim F

I think you are right. I did look twice and came down on “on.” Not sure why now.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

And to your great credit you wrote ‘principle’ and not ‘principal’.

Michael F
Michael F
1 year ago

“Honestly, I wish I could remember being on a train back then and luxuriating in the knowledge that it was publicly owned. All I can remember is taking it for granted”
Honestly, nobody cares about who owns what as long as they get to their destination on time, and for a fair price. It’s a bit like those nostalgic, soft-focus Remainers who cling to a fairy-tale past when people thought of themselves as “European” and danced around the circle of stars in the EU flag. It never happened. It never will happen. Stop dreaming about non-existent nationalised or supra-nationalist glories, it’s a fantasy.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

I supported Brexit and I would support the re-nationalisation of the railway system, not out of nostalgia but to correct mistakes.

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Or maybe a visceral need to make and live with your own mistakes rather then others’?

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  David Giles

I’m sorry but I don’t understand your point.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I did a lot of travelling on BR and I never want to see it back.

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Thorpe

at least you had those sandwiches back then, to compensate for that experience

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Railway workers should be brought to heel by being banned from taking strike action, as for example were the Police, thanks to legislation in 1919 & 1996.
It is quite ridiculous that a national necessity such as the Railways are allowed to hold the country to ransom in such a fashion.
They are currently some of the most overpaid pseudo public sector workers, and yet the long suffering taxpayer ‘bailed out’ these greedy cretins to the tune of £14-16 billion during the recent Scamdemic!
Enough is enough, whoever wins the Tory jamboree, they must take immediate action whilst there is still time.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

I wouldn’t object to re-nationalisation of the railways or utilities if they were banned from striking.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

People banned from striking used to be called slaves.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

A gross exaggeration as you well know.

Michael F
Michael F
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Because slaves could also hand in their resignation and find a better paid job?

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael F

Where? If there only is one nationalised railway, and their expertise is in that sector, where would this better-paid job be?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Amazon.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

They used to be called civil servants.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I believe that the defining features of slavery were (are):
a) slaves don’t get paid
b) slaves can’t leave their jobs
c) slaves are owned by their masters(employers)
In what way would employees banned from striking fit into this mould?

Last edited 1 year ago by Linda Hutchinson
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

So how are they supposed to negotiate for their wages to keep pace with inflation? If they are forbidden from striking why would their employer negotiate in good faith knowing they couldn’t withdraw their labour as a last resort?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Negotiation, as the Police do.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

No meaningful negotiation is possible when one side to a negotiation has the power to fire the other side, and you know it.  

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Really? How often do we ‘fire’ the Poice?

Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

While as a country our productivity is amongst the lowest in Europe wages cannot keep pace with inflation. The rest of the world doesn’t owe us a living so either we somehow increase productivity or we resign ourselves to a lower standard of living

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

They can leave anytime they like, same as normal jobs.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The vast majority of workers do not strike; those who do now are using industrial power to hold the country to ransom and as we know are far from the least privileged and poorest paid workers.

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
1 year ago

I also frequently mull over the effectiveness of privatising BR, and whether it would be a good idea to renationalise. At the moment we are paying far higher prices for services that are still unreliable on trains made by overseas manufacturers. Are lamentable franchisees such as Cross Country really owned by Deutsche Bahn? BR was comfortable, and reasonably priced with tickets that did not jump in price when company turf was crossed.
Main concerns would be the cost of renationalisation (although I understand it’s just a matter of letting franchises expire), and the disregard for timetables that plagued BR.
Whatever your views on climate change, it is surely desirable to have far greater numbers of people moving by rail. I consider myself fortunate to now be living in a country with a state railway that is affordable, comfortable and reliable.
PS. The stations are much better than in BR’s day – courtesy of Network Rail?

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

What is the point of reasonably priced if there is a “disregard for the timetable” and the taxpayer is picking up the bill, non rail-users effectively subsidising the affluent passenger?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

How do we forget so easily? British Rail was a disaster and just got worse and worse. Privatisation was a half baked affair, a Major fudge, but even that brought vast improvements in customer service, a big upturn in the numbers carried, fares sensitive to loadings like airlines, new trains, reopened lines and stations, and a new positive attitude from staff. Oh, and the trains ran on time, mostly.

The flaw was always state control of the tracks and some stations, and the Department of Transport endlessly interfering.

What is needed is to finish privatisation and forget any role for the government in running trains!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

And stop subsidising them! It only encourages spineless management.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
1 year ago

“If Brexit taught us anything, it’s that a sentimental yearning for the past underpins Global Britain’s sense of its own adorable character.”
I don’t think that’s true at all.
Brexit was about sovereignty. We did not want the tyranny that was building in Europe. You don’t have to ‘yearn for the past’ to want to be able to decide what’s best for your own country.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

The ‘sentimental yearning’ thing is a favourite aspersion by Remainers yet surveys after the referendum found that the most common reason given by Leavers was ‘taking back control’.
When you look at the history of the UK railway system it is broadly many privately owned systems reorganised and then nationalised to fix the problems of private ownership. The nationalised rail system was then denationalised to fix the problems of national ownership. The proposed renationalisation of the rail system will once again fix some problems but create others.
Arguably most of the repeated failures come down to lack of private capital investment or lack of government capital investment. Bit of a theme there perhaps?

Jos Vernon
Jos Vernon
1 year ago

Why is this article called “take back control”? It’s nothing to do with that. In the URL you can see what the title is. It’s the-beauty-of-british-rail.

This is not the only article with a mangled title. There’s a sub out there waiting to be fired.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago
Reply to  Jos Vernon

Indeed. I almost didn’t open it because the topic (indicated by the new title) just doesn’t interest me.
Instead the article is well written and, as you say, talks about “the beauty of British rail”, a much more apt title.

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago
Reply to  Jos Vernon

To be fair, the sub have needed to read the article to the end to arrive at a title fiy for purpose. Would you really wish that on them?

Jos Vernon
Jos Vernon
1 year ago
Reply to  David Giles

I assume you are being ironic here. The sub is the heartbeat of any publication. They fit the square peg into the round hole without any shavings. They make it work without fuss. Once you notice them they are dead.

Philip Hood
Philip Hood
1 year ago

I don’t think the redevelopment of Euston by BR is anything to shout about. Compared to the other mainline stations which avoided the hubris of the 60’s and 70’s it is gloomy, cramped and dismal …. A reminder of nationalised BR

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

This is not so much nostalgia as blatant revisionism. Or maybe BR really was that great in Londonshire, and stuff the others, eh? Because it certainly wasn’t great up here.
While UK population has (officially, but who really knows?) grown by about 20% since 1980, and car ownership has almost doubled, passenger numbers on UK railways more than doubled after 1994 privatisations. A resounding success, if you ask me. The capacity problems stem from that success.
And if we’re being partisan, let’s just skip over the fact that the Beeching cuts, approved by both parties, started under Labour.
Some links:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-42182497
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Privatisation_of_British_Rail
https://www.statista.com/statistics/304957/total-historical-national-rail-passenger-journeys-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/

Last edited 1 year ago by Brendan O'Leary
burke schmollinger
burke schmollinger
1 year ago

How can you celebrate the replacement of the old Euston with its arch and grand hall, by that ugly warehouse of a station that could exist as a ‘nowhere space’ anywhere in the world, and then lament being treated “like freight”?

I’ve never been to Euston but I’ve been to (rebuilt) Penn Station and (original) Grand Central and I have to say contrary to the opinion here I’d rather enter our Great City under the Gods than under a fluorescent concourse in equality. That is, the type of equality that the NYC rats have.

Tim F
Tim F
1 year ago

No, No, NO. Definitely not. The manual may be charming but it didn’t reflect reality. You say ‘remember Euston’. It was British Railways that destroyed Euston, and they wanted to do the same to St Pancras. They closed lines which could either have been kept open in their entirety or where some creative rationalisation could have taken place (e.g. Rugby to Leicester where there was a direct line on the Great Central, but which was lost when the whole GC main line was axed; BR could have kept this particular important link. Instead, you now have to go north to Nuneaton and change – 25 mins has become over one hour). Even union leaders who were skeptical and opposed to privatisation have had to admit that in the old days it was all talk of decline and cut, now the railways are expanding, it’s growth: to wit Oxford to Cambridge. BR was theoretically accountable, but complacent, indifferent, inefficient and often dirty. Privatisation has given the railways a commercial voice which it did not have before. It had to kowtow to the Treasury for investment. If the railways were renationalised, then so should road haulage (remember those red lorries – British Road Services?).Yes, I don’t like being called a ‘customer’ rather than a ‘passenger’, and I don’t like seeing my money going to Trenitalia when I purchase a ticket, but I can put up with that for what is on the whole a better service. Let’s leave it alone.

Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
1 year ago

As a piece of history the manual is well worth reading but as for renationalisation most of the Train Operating Companies are already effectively nationalised. Either running a service directly for the OLR or for a management fee of about 2%. Living in Holland at the time I can also remember the Dutch government being very upset that the Dutch taxpayer were subsidising the Scotrail and Greater Anglia franchises through Abellio which was making a massive loss.

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago

Whilst being accused of stripping profits from the rail passenger. The two just funny add up do they.

Barrie Clements
Barrie Clements
1 year ago
Reply to  David Giles

?

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

GWR is superb, staffed by charming people…. Anglia rail is ghastly… There never was de-nationalisatiin, as no Government ever managed to penetrate and defeat Eversholt House if I remember correctly, the central BR politburo at Euston?

A typical British compromise of mediocrity where European train operators can fill their pockets, free of the positive consumer protecting rules that keep prices down and efficiency up in their own countries.

Graeme Macphee
Graeme Macphee
1 year ago

The lavatories at Euston are free……

William Foster
William Foster
1 year ago

Meanwhile calls are being made for the privatisation of the NHS. Is anyone else wondering if it is not the systems at fault? You can’t Build Back Better what is still standing.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 year ago
Reply to  William Foster

The privatisation of the NHS? Ah, if that happened then there might be hope for us all. We can dream and hope

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago

Aah, New Street Station, Birmingham.

Every day spent apart from you just makes the heart grow fonder.

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago

Aah, New Street Station, Birmingham.

Every day spent apart from you just makes the heart grow fonder.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

If Brexit taught us anything, it’s that a sentimental yearning for the past underpins Global Britain’s sense of its own adorable character.”

Jeez Ian. One day, as a man who I suspect once had a degree of self awareness and the ability to reflect, but who has abandoned doing so for the blinkered agenda, I hope you manage to recover these essential human qualities. You remind me of those intelligent, self aware Germans who supported the na**s and then realised, only after a global war of annihilation, that they’d blindly followed an ideology.

If I was religious, I’d pray for you to achieve some insight on your daft views. But I don’t think it’ll happen.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Barbican’s alright. I wouldn’t even call it Brutalist.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
1 year ago

I am fervently against the government owning anything – BUT there are some infrastructures like the rail network (and water and electric) where it is tough to see how you can create competition without creating terrible in-efficiencies.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

“Brutalist masterpieces redefined civic space”
I know you’re a comic writer, but this goes beyond comedy.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
1 year ago

As a fellow ageing leftie I greatly appreciated the article but one quibble re the uniforms. I recall with the double-arrow insignia we thought them a little too reminiscent of the SS at the time.

Man of Gwent
Man of Gwent
1 year ago

So we should renationalise railways because of accents and uniforms?

BR was rubbish. Whilst I would agree that some of the privatised operators are also poor, some are very good. The biggest issue must be the price of tickets, but unless the government wants to subsidise travel to a greater degree then prices are going to be high.

And of course governments have prioritised vehicle transport over rail for years and have invested less that other governments.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
1 year ago

How well I recall the railways of old: vastly overmanned yet somehow travellers were a seeming afterthought. And of course people were just ‘passengers’ rather than ‘customers’: the ‘customer’ for any nationalised industry is the state, not the hapless travellers.
The idea that being state run makes things better is not just wrong, it verges on insane.

Amy Lamp
Amy Lamp
1 year ago

ney

Last edited 1 year ago by Amy Lamp
Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

The sooner we get out entirely of the outdated, inflexible, unreliable, strike prone railway age the better. We could do with many more roads and parking spaces though. So take up the the tracks, tarmac the lines, turn the stations into car and bus parks and let us get on with our personal timetables under our own steam. But whatever please save us from this false memory, blinkered view and hopelessly flawed prescription for another golden age of rail. You have to be kidding.