Rail Alphabet

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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 signage on the British Rail network. 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 to a bold weight of Helvetica, but with some differences in character shapes,[2] stroke width and x-height to aid legibility. The font also has some similarities to Akzidenz-Grotesk, which had earlier provided the same designers the broad inspiration for the Transport typeface used for road signs in the United Kingdom.

The font was designed specifically for signage and the designers included features to support this such as a bespoke letter-spacing system and two slightly different weights to provide optimum visibility on both light and dark backgrounds.[2]

British Rail[edit]

In 1949 the Railway Executive decided on standard types of signs to be used at all stations. Lettering was to use redrawn versions of Gill Sans lettering on a background of the regional colour.[3][4] 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 road users - 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 stations where it would primarily be viewed indoors by pedestrians.[5]

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[6] 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.[7] 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.

Post British Rail[edit]

The privatisation of British Rail from 1994 accelerated the decline in use of the typeface on the railway network with most of the privatised train operating companies who now manage individual stations choosing to use the fonts associated with their own corporate identities for station signs and publicity. More recently, the custom Brunel typeface introduced by Railtrack for signs at major stations and adapted by Network Rail as NR Brunel was recommended as a new national standard for station signs by a 2009 report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Transport,[8] and was used extensively by South West Trains and East Midlands Trains. Meanwhile, Helvetica Medium has replaced Rail Alphabet as the industry's preferred typeface for safety notices within passenger trains due to the ready availability of the former and for consistency with British Standards on general safety signs.[9]

Some train operators continued use of Rail Alphabet long into the privatisation era. Arriva Trains Wales[10] used the font until the end of the franchise in 2018, with First Great Western also making extensive use of Rail Alphabet for signage until the firm's rebranding to Great Western Railway in 2015. Merseyrail[11] continues to use the typeface for station signage. Its use is also still prescribed for trackside warning signs and safety/operating notices.[12]

Other uses[edit]

The National Health Service in England, Scotland and Wales adopted Rail Alphabet for its signs. It is still the dominant typeface used on signs in older hospitals. It ceased to be used in new builds in the late 1990s. NHS England now uses Frutiger,[13] while NHS Scotland uses Stone Sans.[14]

Rail Alphabet was widely used on signs by the British Airports Authority and by Danish railway company DSB.[15]

New Rail Alphabet[edit]

In 2009, a newly digitised version of the typeface was publicly released. Created by Henrik Kubel of A2/SW/HK in close collaboration with Margaret Calvert, New Rail Alphabet features six weights: off white, white, light, medium, bold and black, with non-aligning numerals, corresponding italics and a set of Eastern European characters.[16]

Rail Alphabet 2[edit]

In 2020, it was announced that Network Rail had commissioned an updated version of the typeface. Designed by Margaret Calvert and Henrik Kubel, Rail Alphabet 2 includes a lighter, more condensed version of the lettering for signage along with accompanying versions for use in printed matter and online.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Design Museum - Jock Kinneir + Margaret Calvert. Retrieved 1 July 2010.
  2. ^ a b "British Rail Corporate Identity". Retrieved 4 August 2020.
  3. ^ "Railway Station Signs. Standard Lettering". Warminster & Westbury journal, and Wilts County Advertiser. England. 20 May 1949. Retrieved 13 February 2017 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  4. ^ Standard Stations Signs The Railway Magazine issue 582 July 1949 page 271
  5. ^ https://thebeautyoftransport.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/on-line-typeface-rail-alphabet-typeface-uk/
  6. ^ http://www.doublearrow.co.uk/manual/1_10.1965-04.jpg[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ "Institute of Railway Studies: Railway Ephemera".
  8. ^ "Better trail stations" (PDF). November 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 November 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2010.
  9. ^ "Research Programme" (PDF). Rail Safety and Standards Board. April 2003. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2010.
  10. ^ "Making Rail Accessible". Retrieved 14 January 2012.
  11. ^ "Liverpool South Parkway on Flickr - Photo Sharing!".
  12. ^ "Lineside Operational Safety Signs" (PDF). October 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
  13. ^ "NHS CFH visual identity guidelines, section 4" (PDF).[permanent dead link]
  14. ^ "NHS Scotland: Corporate Identity". Archived from the original on 1 May 2009. Retrieved 27 April 2009.
  15. ^ "Eye blog » Rue Britanica. Typeface name changes after Eye magazine goes to press".
  16. ^ "New Rail Alphabet".
  17. ^ "Making places for people and trains".

External links[edit]