The Changing Face of the British Railways

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British Railways created some of the most distinctive and widely-recognised design imagery in post-war Britain – but there was often a significant difference between the way its image was imagined by professional designers and the ways it was actually experienced by passengers and other users. Such trade-offs between design ideals and their manifestations are explored here for the first time. The narrative covers many aspects of B.R.’s activities – including shipping, property development and catering. Based on extensive original research and profusely illustrated, it provides new insights into the British railway scene and design in Britain more generally.

This book won the  RCHS (The Railway & Canal Historical Society) Railway History Book of the Year award and was also judged to be this year’s overall winner – Transport History Book of the Year.

Published 10th September 2018.


Additional information


Bruce Peter


Hardback, 29.5cm x 21cm





Publication Date

6th September 2017


Lily Publications

3 reviews for The Changing Face of the British Railways

  1. Extracts of the book review in The Railway & Canal Historical Society by Peter Brown

    The cover, with pictures of locomotives and multiple unites. gives a misleading impression of this superb book’s content – it is actually a wide-ranging discussion of design relating to all aspects of British Railways’ operations, including carriages, wagons, shipping (with an emphasis on the public areas), architecture, catering, signage and ephemera.  The author is not dogmatic in his opinions, being realistic about practical and financial constraints.The text naturally divides into sections dealing with BR’s early search for unity, the Modernisation Plan of the 1950’s, the Beeching years and the creation of a corporate identity, and sectorisation which lead to privatisation.  The design history is set in the context of the economic, social and political history of the country and the railways, hence the backgrounds to the trends are expired.  It is also a history with people: the senior managers and engineers as well as the designers, both those employed within the organisation and the consultants.  Recurring themes are tensions between engineers and design consultants, between the centre and the regions, between a unified vision and individuality, between drawing-board ideas and day-to-day intensive useage.  Mere rebranding and repainting made little impression on the public unless the service was seen to improve, and was particularly unconvincing on aged items. Geed design matters, but design fashions change every ten to fifteen years, whereas locomotives and rolling stock are expected to last for a quarter of a century.  High praise here for the HST, a merging of engineering and design which produced a ‘classic’ which remains attractive forty years later.  Perhaps changing fashion is seen most clearly in railway architecture: the ‘Festival of Britain’ style with patterned brickwork and decorative finishes; the International style of the Modernisation Plan era; prefabrication in the later 1960s and early 1970s; postmodernism and the revival in appreciation (and de-cluttering) of Nineteenth-century station buildings in the 1980s.  But each concept tended to start with high ideas, then become progressively debased.With over 250,000 words of text, the print size is quite small but the book is well laid out, a particular strength being the many series of photographs showing how key designs evolved.  It has an extensive bibliography, detailed (but not excessive) references and an index.  And it is remarkably good value at under £30.00 

  2. Railway & Canal Historical Society

    At a ceremony held at the Abbey Hotel, Barrow in Furness, before an audience of more than 80 members and guests, the Railway & Canal Historical Society announced its Transport History Book of the Year award winners for 2019. Ten books had been short-listed and prizes were awarded in three categories.
    The winner of the Railway History Book of the Year was The Changing Face of British Railways by Bruce Peter, published by Lily Publications.
    There have been a few books published about British Railways design, all of which to date have focussed on the designers and their shiny ex-works products. This book takes a broader view, treating the railway not simply as a means of taking people from A to B but considering the total experience from many perspectives – that of the managers who commissioned the work, the designers, engineers, architects and others who created the stations, trains and ships, the passengers, even that of the enthusiasts with an inexplicable affection for this form of public transport. A recurring theme of the book is that the high-minded intentions of the designers were not always realised. Many things conspired to produce a disconnect between the designers’ idealistic aims and the customers’ ultimate experience. The author contrasts the pre-nationalisation situation, where the Chief Mechanical Engineers were powerful public figures, with more recent times where anonymity seems to be the rule. He places names on record – designers, engineers, architects, consultants and all – and has interviewed many of them. This is a history with people.

  3. Review from the April edition of Backtrack

    Design and aesthetics have been part of our railway scene since the birth of passenger railways, even if not recognised as such. Recall the lavish liveries, polished brass, names bestowed on locomotives as if they were ships, monumental stations and viaducts, castellated tunnel portals. All these demonstrated a conscious intention to establish in the public mind the dignity, power and scope of railways, and this in part is the theme of Bruce Peter’s magnificent new book. Whilst popular railway literature has often stressed locomotive history, around the middle of the last century another approach crept in. C. Hamilton Ellis, Christian Barman, Geoffrey Kichenside and Brian Haresnape were amongst the pioneers of what has become a major branch of railway studies. ‘Design’, it was argued, was not just a decorative dress but a comprehensive approach which informed the whole process of origination, construction and operation of railway equipment and structures, to enhance their public appeal. So this book is much more than an aesthetic analysis and includes succinct accounts of, for example, the origins and development of the High Speed Train and of the second generation DMUs.
    After an historical introduction Bruce Peter reviews the sometimes tentative history of British Railways’ policies, beginning with the establishment of a Design Panel in 1956 which helped ameliorate some of the worst features of early Modernisation Plan rolling stock. The full corporate identity which followed in 1963 is recognised as another of the positive legacies of the much-reviled Richard Beeching, and one which made BR a standard-bearer in Europe (if, like the prophets, it was sometimes without honour in its own home). A small aspect of these innovations thankfully survives: the inspired ‘double arrow’ whose design process is recounted here and which still identifies our stations.
    Over seventeen chapters we follow the emergence and later refinement of a coherent rolling stock and traction policy, and innovations in areas such as ships, hotels, goods traffic, catering outlets, hovercraft, signage, and uniforms. Even those well read in BR history may find surprises here, such as the sad story of the Old Course Hotel at St. Andrew’s, the observation DMU proposed (vainly) for the Scottish Region’s scenic lines and the development of the doomed APT. Engineers and managers did not always welcome the interventions of designers, and the resulting conflicts add a human element to the story. The text is lavishly supported by illustrations, many in colour, and although some are familiar official views many are less well-known. There are thorough source-references and a full bibliography and index.
    The book ends with a sad valediction. Sectorisation had already eroded BR’s unified visual palette, although arguably some of the best work came towards the end, such as the final InterCity livery. After reviewing these last achievements – the Class 442 units, Network SouthEast, Class 91 and the Mark IV coach, Eurostar and station restorations such as Liverpool Street – we are left with today’s meretricious kaleidoscope of bright ideas, some devoid of any apparent good taste. ‘Ichabod’ one might say, ‘where is the glory now’?
    It is impossible to do credit within the scope of a few hundred words to one of the finest and most authoritative recent railway studies, but if you buy only one book about design policy this should be it.

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