Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
One enthusiast hopes to track down the final missing pages of the U.K.’s iconic national train service guide before releasing it as a book.
The British Railways rebranding in 1965 announced to riders it was ready to usher in an era of modern, efficient service.
The rail system, nationalized in 1948, had previously been known for its old steam locomotives, outdated rail cars, and hard-to-navigate stations. Shortening its name to British Rail, the transit network also commissioned a comprehensive graphic standards manual to usher in an era of faster trains and better stations. Originally made by Design Research Unit, the four-volume binder set is now being recreated in book form by graphic designer and British Rail enthusiast Wallace Henning.
Henning was first drawn to the guide in 2006 after reading about it in a newspaper article. Soon after he started a Flickr account for all the British Rail ephemera he could find and dedicated his master’s thesis at Ravensbourne College to creating a visual identity for a renationalized network.
After decades as a national system, British Rail went private again in the 1990s, riding a wave of Thatcher-era privatization. While the sandwiches may have been terrible, it’s hard not to be wistful for a time where government was big, rich, and ambitious enough to own and operate one of Europe’s best rail systems. That wish may come true. Earlier this year, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn announced plans to renationalize the rails as their private contracts expire. According to the Guardian, Corbyn’s plan would mean “a third of the railways would be in public hands by the end of his first parliament in 2025.”
Like the NYCTA standards manual from 1970, British Rail’s restrained, modern aesthetic is an easy sell to anyone who admires the art of making something so complex look so simple. “We needed it to look low-key so that it stood out from the commercial signs,” Margaret Calvert, who designed British Rail’s typeface, explained in a BBC documentary earlier this year. “We wanted that difference because we felt people would then believe in it. … It’s quite ordinary and I quite like the word ‘ordinary’ because people think nobody designed it.”
The logo, designed by Gerry Barney, is still used as an official rail symbol across the U.K.
Henning is raising money for his project on Kickstarter and hopes to have the book published by next May. Some challenges remain. He has “98 percent” of the pages, which means he’s still looking for museums and private collections with fully intact manuals. Henning is offering “a complimentary copy and a note of thanks in the book,” to anyone who helps his team track down a missing page.