The rebirth of the Great Western Railway

The Great Western Railway is reborn with a new Pentagram-designed identity that rebrands train operating company First Great Western. But can looking back to the railway’s distinguished past help the company to move forward?

Earlier this week First Great Western officially became Great Western Railway. Its new look is the result of an identity redesign carried out by John Rushworth and his team at Pentagram‘s London studio. Though while the GWR logo is new, the name itself is not – and the identity overhaul overtly references the company’s heritage and its role in the formation of the UK’s railways in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Great Western Railway name was first used in 1833 with trains brought onto the new network in 1838. Under the direction of the 29 year-old engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Western Railway became a rail network of unprecedented size and scale. When nationalisation took place in 1948, the name was discontinued and it became the western region of British Railways.

Significantly, the current level of planned investment in the west of England’s rail network is on a scale with that of Brunel’s time, as GWR posters continue to remind its customers: “the biggest overhaul since the steam age,” one reads; “a 21st century railway that would make Brunel himself proud,” reads another.

From @GWRUK
From @GWRUK

Indeed, Pentagram’s brief was to echo what the train company has been calling its “renaissance of rail”, a reflection of the £7.5bn that GWR is set to invest in the network as part of the Great Western Mainline initiative – alongside Network Rail’s refits and rebuilds on the way to electrifying the system – over the next three years.

(The Intercity Express Programme will also include the introduction of a new fleet of Hitachi electric trains from 2017 – FGW RMT union members walked out on strike in August in a dispute relating to the staffing and on-board facilities that these new trains will require.)

HST livery
HST livery

Pentagram’s GWR identity for FGW had in fact been created three years ago – GWR insignia had already appeared on first class seating – but its full reveal this week made sense following on from several campaigns that had announced the huge changes to the network.

“The initial brief was very good, it was part of First’s rebidding for the franchise,” says Rushworth. “It was all about the ‘renaissance of rail’ … putting pride back into the sector, but in a way that was tangible and believable rather than it just being about – let’s say – a coat of paint. We wanted to make sure that it was delivered as a modern, contemporary railway company, relevant to rail travel and travellers today, but obviously one that was conscious of its history,” he says. “You shouldn’t walk away from your history, you should always celebrate it.

“That said, we took the attitude that the new visual identity would be appropriate if it felt like this had been in continuum from the days of when the Great Western Railway was valued but that, through natural evolution, this is where it had ended up.”

Train livery featuring the new logo in the matt 'sash'
Train livery featuring the new logo in the matt ‘sash’

In the original GWR insignia, still used on the windows of the first class lounge at Paddington station, the three letters were confined within a circle and followed the curve of its outline (shown below). In the new version, the ‘W’ is outsized – offering a zig-zagged suggestion of the electrification to come – and divides the ‘G’ and ‘R’ more distinctly.

Rushworth says that the letters were designed to suggest “engineering first” and that the size of the ‘W’ emphasises the connection with “the West”. The dark green colouring also references the hue of the original engines which ran on the GWR.

Original GWR logo on a bench at Hammersmith station (photo: 150greatthingsabouttheunderground.com)
Original GWR logo on a bench at Hammersmith station (photo: 150greatthingsabouttheunderground.com)

The new branding has now been rolled out across several elements of the network, from rolling stock and ticket offices, to uniforms, timetables, a new-look website (created by ORM) and mobile app. It is estimated that it will take a couple of years to transform the whole fleet of GWR trains and stations into the new look.

“You’ve got to wear your history lightly, in my view” says Rushworth. “Because otherwise you become a nostalgic railway line. [GWR] is not the Bluebell line, it’s a modern railway that serves a vast part of the country; commuters, business people, tourists and so on. And like all railways, it’s a democratic audience, it’s for everyone.”

GWR logo
GWR logo

Rushworth believes that the new work will only able to impart a sense of “prestige” – rather than nostalgia – if the look is counterbalanced by being “straightforward and direct”. For him, this comes down to celebrating the engineering history of the company – “engineers are practical people, [but] they also want to inspire” – and aligning this with the railway’s future development.

From @GWRUK
From @GWRUK

“That’s the essence of the story – treading a very careful line between representing the pride of the past, but also allowing enough room for new pride to be created,” Rushworth adds. “Balancing those two components – it’s a very subtle thing to get right and these projects are not usually subtle ones. That’s a challenge in its own right.”

As GWR moves forward, it’s interesting that it has looked back to its past to prepare itself for the journey. Of course, a new livery and logo won’t mean that the challenges FGW has faced as a train operator will suddenly disappear for GWR. If anything, the company now has to work even harder to ensure passenger bugbears such as punctuality and reliability live up to its illustrious past as channeled in its new identity.

Design: Pentagram. Partner: John Rushworth. Associate partner: Joe Stephenson

Hitachi electric train, mocked up in the GWR livery, part of the Intercity Express Programme (IEP)
Hitachi electric train, mocked up in the GWR livery, part of the Intercity Express Programme (IEP)
Paddington ticket office (render)
Paddington ticket office (render)
Standard class seat
Standard class seat

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