Design for Rail – the story of the Railfreight identity

A new exhibition at D&AD examines Roundel’s 1987 identity for Railfreight, a radical design system that used squadron marks and localised insignia to modernise a vital part of British Rail

Britain’s railways of the 1980s were a mess, figuratively and physically. Grimy trains streamed in and out of depots, through under-invested stations and between industries just about grappling with the new global economy in which they found themselves. To many, including British Rail’s clients, things were not looking good.

But the grime and dirt of the freight sector masked the fact that this was the most profitable part of BR. The goods business had seen a resurgence: the Railfreight sector had been reorganised into specialised subsectors including Distribution, Coal, Petroleum, Metals and Construction, and each was showing growth.

Two previous BR identity projects had not helped the outward image of freight. The BR Corporate Design Guidelines (the subject of a meticulous reprint by designer Wallace Henning and funded by Kickstarter) enforced strict rules of colour, type, imagery and logos to a degree never seen before on a transport network. It, along with a comprehensive investment in systems and process, helped unite BR’s motley collection of stations, stock and assets as a single entity.