60 years and still going strong: the British Rail logo

Last Updated -
June 26, 2024
60 years and still going strong: the British Rail logo
60 years and still going strong: the British Rail logo

60 years and still going strong: the British Rail logo

The British Rail double arrow is one of the most iconic logos ever conceived — familiar to millions and still in use across the UK and beyond after 60 years. We’ve taken a deep dive into the history of the logo and the brand identity it was associated with — and looked at what the future holds for this classic of British design.

Modernising Britain’s railways from the ground up

Formed in 1948, in the shadow of the Second World War, by the 1960s British Railways was in need of modernisation. On the tracks, steam locomotives were being replaced by new diesel and electric trains. At the stations, the heraldic symbolism of the British Railways logo, and heavy, complex lettering no longer seemed fit for purpose. 

A new visual identity was needed — sleeker, more modern, and visually simpler — reflecting British optimism as homegrown talent in fashion, music, art and design once again put the country on the map. In 1964, the British Rail Design Research Unit (DRU) started work on one of the earliest examples of the type of comprehensive brand guidelines we use today — the British Rail Corporate Identity Manual.

Moving towards user-focused design

The old British Railways livery had drawn on complex and traditional imagery, common for brands in the early 20th century. By the 1960s the new focus was on the user — making the brand as simple and easy to recognise as possible while reflecting its ambition and forward-looking attitude in a new era of travel. 

In the first phase of the process, around 50 logo ideas were produced, with an early frontrunner emerging — the twin circle design by the DRU’s own Collis Clements. However, following an internal exhibition of the designs (in those days, design reviews required a full set of printed materials to be made up), the proposed brand was leaked to the press. With the future launch spoiled by the leak, it was ultimately decided to abandon the idea.

A new visual identity, on the back of an envelope

With Clements’ design abandoned, the DRU turned to an unlikely saviour, Gerald Barney — a relatively junior designer who had submitted a simple double arrow design (drawn on the back of an envelope!) in response to DRU leadership opening up the initial idea generation process to other departments.

As a lettering designer by trade, he had the attention to detail and understanding of negative space to add tapering to the diagonal sections, removing the illusion that they widened towards the end — which would be caused by using a consistent width.  

The resulting logo was so effective that within less than a year, the “British Rail” text began to be phased out of the logotype, leaving only Barney’s now iconic double arrow — an arrestingly simple piece of design that spoke for itself.

Adding words to the imagery

The new brand centred on communication, clarity and practicality — so the typeface had to match the simplicity of the logo. The DRU commissioned Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert, who had recently worked on a successful overhaul of road signage in the UK with their Transport typeface and iconic road sign pictograms — many still in use today. 

They created Rail Alphabet — a neo-grotesque sans-serif typeface for signage across the modernised British Rail network. It includes a bespoke letter-spacing system to ensure optimal visibility at different sizes and distances and two distinct weights for use on light or dark backgrounds. While it’s no longer in use across the network, their font can still be seen on signage for MerseyRail, some older NHS hospitals, and even parts of the Iranian motorway network. But could it still make a return in the UK?

60 years old — and no sign of retirement

While much of the 1960s British Rail brand was gradually eroded as the network was privatised and split into regional operations with their own identities, the iconic logo survived. UK rail passengers will recognise it from station signs across the country, as well as every printed ticket issued, and the rail enquiries mobile app — as it became the logo of National Rail.

Now, it’s set for a new lease of life — as the central element of the new Great British Railways brand, which will once again unite rail service branding throughout the UK. To complement it, Margaret Calvert was once again commissioned, this time with co-designer Henrik Kubel, to update the classic typeface and signage guides for a new generation — creating Rail Alphabet 2 which is already being rolled out across the network.

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