It was really good to see Network Rail Chairman Sir Peter Hendy championing the cause of good design on the railway (p76, last month). Long before I came on the scene, the BR Design Panel was insisting, sometimes in the teeth of opposition from the robber baron Regional General Managers, that Margaret Calvert’s elegant Rail Alphabet, first introduced in 1964, should be used for all signs and notices across the network.
When I joined in the mid-1980s, it was virtually a done deal, and by the time privatisation struck in 1994 it is fair to say the entire rail network, signage at least, looked pretty much as one. And by then it had also been adopted by a wide range of rail and transport authorities across the world.
But sadly that didn’t last in Britain. Anything as corporate as the Design Panel was anathema to the privateers and it was wound up in the last days before privatisation – and with it much of the work achieved over the previous 30 years.
We nevertheless pushed for the double-arrow symbol, the Rail Alphabet, and the well-established and internationally admired InterCity brand to be retained, but Government would have none of it. Challenged, one probably now long forgotten Transport Minister (by you, but rest assured not me!) airily told me Government wanted to ‘make obvious the huge amount of freedom privatisation will bring to the railway’. To be specific, that would be freedom to confuse passengers while spending huge amounts of money on what has since been well over 100 different livery schemes using pretty much every typeface you can think of provided by an equally varied number of consultants at considerable cost (not always matched by a comparable degree of talent).