20 August 2009

The Arrow of Indecision

A friend recently asked me why, in this age of privatisation, was the symbol of a nationalised railway still evident at all stations on the National Rail network. The answer is one of straightforward copyright and common sense.

The current logo that many still refer to that of British Railways (BR) was officially introduced on 1 January 1965 and described as 'two-way traffic arrows on parallel lines representing tracks'. It's been around ever since, lasting well beyond BR itself.

The logo was itself a re-vamp of one that was first unveiled in 1949, the year after BR was formed, having purchased the four main railway companies of the time: Great Western Railway, London, Midland & Scottish Railway, London & North Eastern Railway and Southern Railway. Nationalisation took place on 1 January 1948, following the Transport Act of the year previous. The railways would be operated by the State until 1994, some 46 years (though privatisation wasn't completed until 1997).

This first logo was applied to all-things BR, including the steam locomotives themselves, from 1948-1956 and the second from 1956-1965 (by this time, diesel and DC electric locos were in operation and wore this logo).

This was the first logo to represent British Railways, applied to steam locos from 1948. It was nicknamed 'the unicycling lion'.

The 'unicycling lion' was replaced by the 'ferret and dart board' in 1956. This logo would remain until 1965 when BR introduced the current 'arrow of indecision' logo that is visible at your nearest train station today.

Back to the current logo and the top arrow always points right and the bottom arrow to the left, to simulate the direction of two trains passing. An example of the logo with the arrows pointing in the opposite direction could be seen on ships that BR operated during the heyday of its operation, with the top arrow pointing left, towards the mast from which it was attached.

British Railways also owned and operated ships. This white-on-blue logo is a deliberate reflection of the standard logo to represent the railways.

The 'modern day' logo has been dubbed 'the barbed wire' and my personal favourite, 'the arrow of indecision'. Not everyone was a fan of BR and its nationalised railway. By default, upon privatisation in 1994, the copyright of the logo passed to the Department for Transport (DfT), who continue to preside over the rail industry, having far more involvement in its day-to-day operation that they do the bus industry. Many train operating companies (TOCs) do not like what they refer to as 'micro-management', though the DfT happily refers to the millions upon millions of pounds TOCs receive from the Treasury, to quell such outbursts of interference.

Thousands of South West Trains (SWT) commuters have the DfT's so-called 'micro-management' attitude to thank recently, when the then Transport Minister Lord Adonis refused to permit SWT to close many of its ticket offices at the times of day it described as less busy. If a bus operator wants to close its ticket office, as Stagecoach did in Peterborough city centre in 2006, the DfT has absolutely no say in this whatsoever and it's down to the local authority to step in and ensure a point of contact in the city centre continues (a council-run office there now exists).

It's just as well the DfT is willing to keep the BR logo in use - its own department doesn't have a logo at all - and having the above visible at every station in the land would certainly have a ring of nationalisation.

With such a hold on the rail industry, the DfT insisted from-the-off that this well-known, simplistic logo should continue to represent the National Rail network of train services and in many ways the collection of TOCs who provide the services. It is not the official logo of any operation, however. Its removal from all stations nation-wide would have been costly, so too would the equally exuberant outgoings in commissioning a PR consultancy to design a new one for the privatised era, and to then affix to all station buildings etc.

Its use today has been downgraded to that of only public street signs, road signs and on the tickets themselves. It is ironic that it was produced to better reflect Britain's nationalised railway industry and yet now is by far the strongest railway brand in this country - possibly the world - despite being over a decade into that of a privatised operation, with 23 different TOCs merrily accepting its continued use. (CW)