The Great British Railway - Maynard
train design

The Great British Railway

With the studio about to embark on concept design for the FutureRailway competition, we’ve come over all nostalgic for train travel.

Slam doors, bone shakers, the hey day of British Rail, when first class really meant first class, wood panelling, booth seating, the cycle cage catering for those extra commuters on the 8.09 between Purley and London Victoria, ah those were the days… or maybe not so… but I guess the majority of us spend a lot of our waking lives sat on these mechanical beasts with little appreciation for the detailed design that has gone into their creation.

The first British Railways locomotive was built in association with English Electric and introduced around the late 40’s and early 50’s, the first being presented at Euston station on the 18 December 1947.

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Slam-door trains became common in the 1950s when British Railways (BR) sought to modernise its network and do away with steam locomotives. More commonly recognised as commuter trains they were phased out throughout the mid-noughties because of concerns over the safety of doors and lack of protection during a crash. It was described as the end of an era for these distinctive trains. Who else can remember jumping off while the train was still moving?

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Unfortunately I haven’t been able to pinpoint a specific designer or design team to the development of those trains, but one designer we do know of and who has made a name for designing everyday objects is that of Kenneth Grange. He was responsible for the design of the InterCity 125, the brand name of British Rail’s High Speed Train (HST) fleet, which was built from 1975 to 1982 being was introduced in 1976.

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In the later 1950s and early 1960s, the British Transport Commission was modernising its rail network. In particular, it wanted to increase intercity speeds, so that the railways could compete more effectively with the new motorways.

The designer of this modernist classic, who also brought us the angle-poise lamp, the Kenwood Chef mixer and the parking meter, remembers the immediate impact it had. (Interview via)

“I wasn’t a rail person. I’d designed the Kenwood Chef and the Kodak Instamatic camera and was brought in to do a paint job: to put the BR livery on the engine. In those days, locomotives were big, ugly, blunt-nosed things, and the impact of what was basically a wall of steel entering a tunnel was damaging the brickwork. So without telling anyone, I decided to redesign it.

The idea to give it a streamlined front came from racing cars, which were elegantly designed. It was more a question of what I thought would go fast rather than what I knew, but I worked with an aerodynamic engineer, we built a model and tested it in a wind tunnel. The photographs looked convincing, and the board listened.

The InterCity 125 was made of very robust moulded plastic, not sheet metal. This was groundbreaking. Also, with conventional trains, coaches were pulled or pushed by a locomotive – but our train would have a power car at each end, a clever piece of engineering. One day, I asked the chief engineer: “What do the buffers do?” He pointed out that because our engine car would never be pushing anything, it didn’t need them. So we took them off, and that became part of the iconic look. The distinctive yellow nose was to warn people working on the track that this bloody great thing was coming.

Next came the seats, which had to be lighter for more speed. I wanted to use a sort of mesh netting, but in those days football hooligans used to take over trains and cut up the upholstery with Stanley knives. So I used strong material and moulded armrests, which has been the convention ever since. In those days, carriage doors opened via a handle on the inside, but some silly buggers had leaned against them and managed to fall out, so the InterCity used central locking.

There was a bit of a fanfare for the launch in 1977, though nothing like what would happen today. BR chairman Sir Peter Parker hired Peter Marsh, a right character, who did a legendary pitch: he kept the client waiting for an hour outside his office while he and his staff stubbed out cigarettes and made a right mess. Then he said: “This is what people think British Rail is like. It’s my job to change that.” His company created great slogans: “This is the age of the train” and “Let the train take the strain.

There wasn’t a sign of modernism in Paddington station. So I think the workforce – let alone the passengers – was mightily affected. This was a real symbol of hope for the future. I believe that most fervently. Porters, guards, everybody were themselves buying little badges of this train”

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And the 125 still looks modern. The first 125 passenger service left Paddington for Bristol Temple Meads at 8.03 on 3 October, 1976 (return fare a fiver, it arrived three minutes early).

As a design team working on the future rail competition we need to carry this design spirit through and continue to maintain the legacy of the British rail industry with effective, functional and elegant designs.

Watch this space!