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The Colour of Trains

The Colour of Trains

‘Passengers don’t care what colour the train is!’ We’ve been told so by railway management time and again. And yet companies can take a whole lot of trouble and care over the liveries of their trains. As for enthusiasts – the issue seems to get people excited or upset almost more than anything else. 

Branding tells us a lot about what’s going on in the world and after twenty-five years of the multi-colours of privatisation there’s been a touch of retro vibe going on in Great Britain.

First it was Southern. They went with a twenty-first century nod to the ‘twenties. And then in 2020 the new East Midlands Railway franchise emerged with a ‘lined’ * burgundy from an unspecified Harry Potterish era -a design that ‘reflects the heritage of the East Midlands’, though most liveries today are not the paint of the past – they’re often applied in vinyl.

The biggest retro move of all was in Brexit Britain of 2016 when First Group company Great Western Railway dismissed their wavy pink and blue ‘Dynamic Lines’ –successor to its previous ‘Barbie’ magenta. Under the eye of the Department for Transport their passenger vehicles began to turn a dark shade of green – in real paint. It’s quite distinguished and close to the ‘dark holly’ or ‘middle-chrome’ from the early days of the GWR. That’s Brunel’s Great Western founded in 1838! These shades together are what we might call ‘Continuity Green’. 

Green engines seemed popular everywhere – as if it were the proper colour for a prestigious locomotive. Just as no one in the early days had known what station architecture was supposed to look like, no one knew what colour a train should be. Stephenson’s Rocket turned up to the Rainhill Trials in a dashing racy yellow – a real ‘look at me’ colour. It came from stage coaches where it was a suitable scheme to work with horse traction and horse exhaust matter, but not so much with coal smoke. Yellows were never going to stay big. But they’ve had their place in the sun. 

The colour of stagecoaches: replica of Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ Photo: cc Bill Vandermolen

Rail travel was almost the first national branding exercise. Britain – home of railways – is the home of the train as brand. Trains were the first big brands after beer. The way they looked sent signals to politicians, passengers, and to what business now likes to call ‘stakeholders’. Paint and varnish are vital to protect. But logos, highly skilled lining work, crests, typography – that was all décor – all brand – serving to make the market and the politics function to their advantage.

By the 1840’s those stakeholders included people whose houses were about to be demolished. If you are going to de-house tens of thousands of poor people with little compensation, in order to build a railway, you’d better look like you have the authority to do so. Locomotives ended up with crests and adornments as if they were the property of regiments or wealthy landowners. And if you’re going to be a landowner and influencer you must have a coat of arms – and include a motto, possibly in Latin for added mystery, power, and awe. 

With over a hundred railway companies in Britain there were more than a hundred brands. If engines weren’t black, they were mostly going to be green. Relief came with a few companies choosing a nice blue like the Great Eastern and the Caledonian Railway or the gorgeous, almost Ottoman, crimson lake red of the marketing driven Midland Railway. 

And then there were a few extraordinary outliers. The fine chief engineer William Stroudley of the Highland Railway and later the London Brighton and South Coast, insisted his locomotives should be dressed in his ‘Improved Engine Green’. This is a green so improved that it is hardly in the same part of the spectrum. No-one seems to have said ‘Mr Stroudley, sir, you seem to have gone and painted all our engines in a shade of gamboge, this is mustard, sir, perhaps a golden yellow, as of the sunrise over a field of ripening corn, it’s very lovely, but it is most definitely not green’. There has been plenty of speculation as to why Stroudley chose his extraordinary brand colour, for example in enthusiast articles like Could Stroudley tell Yellow from Green? It’s also been suggested he had a sense of humour and was just tired of there being so many damned green engines.

Stroudley’s ‘Gladstone’ sits in York Railway Museum in ‘Improved Engine Green’. Photo: cc Hugh Llewelyn

Mid-chrome, our Continuity Green, was more of an idea than a Pantone number – it changed over the years and was interpreted differently even when it was supposed to be the same colour. It’s doubtful if a colour photograph was taken of any train in Britain until around 1910 and then they were few and far between. The National Railway Museum warns researchers just how difficult it is to be historically entirely accurate. But like the military, railways specified with discipline and there are often handy written and archived specifications. Nevertheless, we still have to use our imagination.

Precise shades are often hardly better recorded than the paint on ancient Roman statues, but from 1906 Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was commissioned by the Czar to photograph the Russian Empire by train – and in colour! He’d studied photography in Paris, Berlin and in Saint Petersburg. Sergey was an innovator and tinkered about until he created a method for producing extraordinary and brilliant colour slides. His technique exposed a plate three times rapidly through three different colour filters: red, green and blue – RGB. He captured the colour of rural Russia. And in a couple of shots from his expedition there’s an engine in a mid-green with orange and black lining.

‘Locomotive and coal car [tender] at a railroad yard’ c 1910 Photo: Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin-Gorskyvia via US Library of Congress

It’s unlike any British locomotive but the colour scheme is almost identical to one that was passed from the Great Western to British Railways. And this lined ‘Brunswick’ is probably the number one colour scheme on the preserved steam engines that are in service for entertainment purposes in Britain today.

Mobile phones and hi-viz orange on the footplate of 46115, star of the 1936 Night Mail and dressed in British Railways passenger engine green, fully lined in orange and black. ‘Scots Guardsman’ by James Johnstone March 11, 2017

Brutal freight engines were often black. But well into the twentieth century the most prestigious passenger railway engines wore their plumage like a military band. The trappings of design around them said power and influence. Following the defeat of the horse and the canal, trains had only had to compete with other trains. The locomotives of the Edwardian era said ‘I’m serious, I’m about prestige, and I’m top dog’.

However, come the ‘twenties and the ‘thirties modal competition emerged. Brand messaging had to switch fast to ‘modernity’ – faster than a bus, more luxurious than a motor car, and even as exciting as air travel. Deco said modern, and businesses like the LNER and the LMS changed their standard liveries at the very top end of the market for a few sexy prestigious trains in premium colour schemes that said ‘streamline’. When we see the blue of the LNER’s ‘Mallard’, or the silver/grey scheme of her erstwhile sisters we see trains that not many people would get to see in real life. They might see pictures in monochrome photography, or in in glorious coloured poster art. These are trains dressed for a modernist future, a future cut catastrophically short.

Red versus blue – mid-thirties deco was often the product of the publicity department. LNER’s 4468 Mallard and LMS engine 6229 Duchess of Hamilton Photo: cc Martin Robson

After world war, nationalisation, and Dr Beeching’s amputations, rebranding was required. The national plan of 1965/6 was the only time everything was painted in one colour with one typeface. The shade was Monastral Blue – the colour of the railway saying ‘don’t close us down’ – we’re relevant, we are not broken like we were before. Competition was with the motorway. And competition was for Treasury money.

It was the only time in British railway history when every train was dressed in a single scheme – every locomotive, every multiple unit, and it extended to everything – stations and buildings, buttons, badges and signs. There’s a nostalgic love for Rail Blue today. But as fresh and exciting as it was in 1966, after the three-day week, miners’ strikes, and the era of punk, it faded fast. 

Rail Blue never said ‘love me’. Blue said trust me. The design was a minimalist masterpiece specified in hundreds of pages of design manual – a masterpiece in cold colours with no hint of anything outside the blue part of the spectrum except that icy grey.  As much a washing away of the past as it was a view of the future, the colour and logo nevertheless found its way on to British Rail’s three narrow gauge steam locomotives in Wales. But it was a stupendous branding exercise. 

‘Everything turned blue’ BR/English Electric 25kV 86 004 at Carlisle in 1976. Photo: cc Hugh Llewelyn

Of this superb piece of modernist work, one bold element remains – the double-arrow logo by the young Gerry Barney which is now the universal symbol throughout the United Kingdom for a railway station – Google Maps even using it in Northern Ireland, where there never was any ‘British Rail’.

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Come privatisation of Britain’s trains in the nineties, new colours were what you could do to transform old trains. Some took on the uniform of the bus businesses that came into the industry. And in the old battle between the east and west coast main lines, two cultures clashed in colour. Out of Kings Cross GNER created a retro railway dreamscape of dark blue and flame orange with brilliant typography. Vignelli Associates of New York had designed the city’s subway map of 1972 and now for the new Great North Eastern Railway they picked out parts of deco and ersatz Victoriana to throw together an extraordinary cocktail of gorgeousness that said ‘classic train travel’. 

GNER trains – a former BR InterCity 225 [left] and an HST 125 pass at Newcastle on ‘the Route of the Flying Scotsman’ Photo: cc Chris McKenna

Featuring dining cars and a crest with the strapline ‘Route of the Flying Scotsman’ and backed by James Sherwood’s Sea Containers, owners of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Orient Express, they really did try for a last hurrah of style. The dark blue was beautiful despite its lack of practicality given the thrashing it gave to air conditioning systems in summer.

Along at Euston on the West Coast, Virgin Trains were wrapped in Richard Branson’s personal red. In 1977 Virgin had redesigned their brand to look more appropriate for the arrival on their record label of the Sex Pistols. Now the Virgin signature logo on red was carried on locomotives and carriages that only a few years before had been dressed in that state owned blue. The Virgin Trains brand has disappeared from this country but lives on as the brand for the new passenger railway between Miami and West Palm Beach. But in Britain, after almost a quarter of a century, the days of raffish railway brands in Britain looked to be over.

Virgin red ‘ribbon livery’ and the ‘tick’ logo on the short-lived east coast franchise Photo: Martin Arrand

The press says that a train is ‘painted’ – which is true for the base colour, though almost everything else in colour is via the use of those handy vinyls. Skilled workers in depots at night applying thousands of square metres of vinyl designs mean that brand messages can change fast. Although, unusually, trains in the UK have almost completely avoided the indignity of being used as advertising hoardings, messaging our social approval was ever part of railway image-making.

Thus, for example, on 2 June 2020 GWR rolled out Hitachi IEP 802020 in a livery celebrating Covid-19 keyworkers in the NHS and on the railway. The five-car bi-mode train is dressed to thank key-workers in the one hundred and sixteen languages used by people across Great Western territory. 

Photos above and below : Great Western Railway

This livery-as-participation incorporates the ideas of three teenagers who entered a competition on GWR’s social media channels to design a thank-you train. Then, on 15 June, Great Western unveiled one of their Hitachi InterCity Express Trains wearing its own Covid-19 ‘face covering’. Quick job – message delivered – millions can see the train via twitter and Facebook. And the base colour of these trains? It’s Great Western green of course.

Big changes are coming to the transport industry very soon. The entrepreneurial days and jolly colours are over for now. South Western is a muted blue. EMR is a dark purple. The likes of Thameslink’s simple vinyls on plain white will work fine for those London commuters who return after Covid19. And for the rest they are all likely to try to say ‘We are frugal, we’re value for money, and we are worth it. Please keep the funds coming.’

* Lining: the application of a fine line or lines as a counterpoint to principal colour.

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