Rail Alphabet

CategoryNeo-grotesque sans-serif
Designer(s)Margaret Calvert, Jock Kinneir
FoundryDepartment for Transport (formerly BRB Residuary Limited and British Railways Board)
Design based onHelvetica
Rail Alphabet in use at Castle Cary railway station

Rail Alphabet is a typeface designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for British Railways. First used at Liverpool Street station, it was then adopted by the Design Research Unit (DRU) as part of their comprehensive 1965 rebranding of the company.[1]

Rail Alphabet is similar, but not identical, to a bold weight of Helvetica. It is not quite as similar to Akzidenz Grotesk or Arial. Akzidenz Grotesk had earlier also provided the same designers the broad inspiration for the Transport typeface used for all road signs in the United Kingdom.

British Rail

In 1949 the Railway Executive decided on standard types of signs to be used at all stations. Lettering was to use the Gill Sans typeface on a background of the regional colour.[2][3] This style persisted for nearly 15 years.

In the early 1960s, British Rail trialled new signs at Coventry station that made use of Kinnier and Calvert's recently launched Transport typeface. While Transport has since been an enduring success on road signs, it was designed around the specific needs of the roadside environment - such as visibility at speed and in all weathers. The subsequent creation of Rail Alphabet was intended to provide a style of lettering more specifically suited to the station environment, where it would primarily be viewed indoors by pedestrians.[4]

The Design Research Unit's 1965 rebranding of British Railways included a new logo (the double arrow), a shortened name British Rail, and the total adoption of Rail Alphabet for all lettering other than printed matter[5] including station signage, trackside signs, fixed notices, signs inside trains and train liveries.

Key elements of the rebranding were still being used during much of the 1980s and Rail Alphabet was also used as part of the livery of Sealink ships until that company's privatisation in the late 1980s. However, by the end of the 1980s, British Rail's various business units were developing their own individual brands and identities with use of Rail Alphabet declining as a consequence.[6] The typeface remained in near-universal use for signs at railway stations but began to be replaced with alternatives in other areas, such as in InterCity's 1989 Mark 4 passenger carriages which made use of Frutiger for much of their interior signage.

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