|Designer(s)||Margaret Calvert, Jock Kinneir|
|Foundry||Department for Transport (formerly BRB Residuary Limited and British Railways Board)|
|Design based on||Helvetica|
Rail Alphabet is a typeface designed by Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert for British Railways. First used by them in signing tests at London's Liverpool Street Station, it was then adopted by the Design Research Unit (DRU) as part of their comprehensive 1965 rebranding of the company.
Rail Alphabet is similar, but not identical, to a bold weight of Helvetica (and, not quite as similar, 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.
In the early 1960s, British Rail trialled new signage 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.
The DRU'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 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. The typeface remained in near-universal use for signage 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.
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 signage and publicity. More recently, the custom Brunel typeface introduced by Railtrack for signage at major stations was recommended as a new national standard for station signage by a 2009 report commissioned by the Secretary of State for Transport, and has since been adopted 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 signage.
Some of the privatised train operators, such as Arriva Trains Wales, and Merseyrail have continued to use the typeface for station signage and its use is still prescribed for trackside warning signs and safety/operating notices.
The National Health Service across Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) adopted Rail Alphabet for its signage. It is still the dominant typeface used in signage in older hospitals. It ceased to be used in new builds in the late 1990s.
New Rail Alphabet
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.
- Gill Sans – the predecessor typeface to Rail Alphabet, used until 1965.
- Johnston Typeface – The typeface used by London Underground, designed by Edward Johnston.
- Public signage typefaces
- Transport Typeface – Another typeface designed by Kinneir & Calvert for use on UK road signs.
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