The Brand of Nostalgia

GWR new GWR old

I often contemplate the “image” of public transport. What are people’s impressions? Users and non-users, commuters, shoppers, bargain-hunters. Are they indifferent to buses, train and trams? Is it a “mode of last resort”, or is it a big part of their daily lives? Maybe it’s both.

OnThisBus – as the name suggests – looks at the bus industry, but my “day job” is on the railways. Leafing through a railway industry magazine the other day, I saw a recruitment advert for GWR – the recently-renamed and re-branded First Great Western. Wow! Who wouldn’t be proud to work for the Great Western Railway! The iconic name evokes memories of the golden age of steam, of first-class service, of adventures far away, of carefree childhood holidays – “God’s Wonderful Railway”, as it was often dubbed.

The new rebranding, logo, etc , is classy. It’s a railway renaissance. And it’s all down to branding.

A mere few months ago, this was the almost faceless “First Great Western” – just another railway company to get annoyed about when the service was late. Has a bit of marketing really had a big effect on the travelling public and staff alike?

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The “old” corporate First Great Western logo

I may be barking up the wrong tree completely here. I don’t use GWR’s services very often and I don’t know anyone who works for them, so maybe I’ve been swallowed up by this deft bit of branding into thinking a mere bit of toe-dipping into the world of nostalgia has made operations by this company all motherhood and apple pie again. Nostalgia does that to you. I’m sure the original GWR had late-running services and leaves on the line. What it didn’t have was Twitter and ignorant individuals screaming obscenities into neat 140-character rants when things got slippery on the rails.

So this bit of the railway has embraced nostalgia, as has other bits. “Southern” is historical. “London Midland” nearly so (although the northernmost tip of its’ network is Liverpool, so the “London Midland & Scottish” – LMS – doesn’t quite work), and the “LNER” was almost replicated with “GNER” for a time too.

The cynical amongst us might consider that FirstGroup’s decision to ditch its’ corporate (and dare I say “bland”) “First Great Western” name for one that will resonate with great numbers of people of a certain age is nothing but a ploy to get us to think differently about its operation. But it’s certainly got me thinking differently about it – in a positive way. The power of the brand, mixed in with equally powerful nostalgia – a yearning for the past, which we often think was better.

Of course, there are modern-day iconic brands. Branson’s Virgin Trains is held (mostly) in high regard by the travelling public. Is this all down to an image? Are the staff proud to work for the company, and thus give excellent customer service? A Virgin Trains crew member occasionally catches my train, wearing the unmissable red jacket. “I love my uniform” she beamed at me the other day. Does good service stem from something as basic as a uniform? Virgin staff always appear spotless to me. Maybe FirstGroup are onto something with reintroducing GWR as a brand. Who wouldn’t feel proud wearing a GWR-branded uniform? Carrying on the traditions of their parents, grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents?

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“iconic” doesn’t necessarily mean “nostalgia”. Is Virgin Trains a modern “iconic brand”?

And I wonder why the bus industry doesn’t do it?

There are plenty of examples of operators repainting a member of the fleet into a “heritage” livery – a great example of how a modern bus might look if the old operator was still around. But I can’t think of an old name that has been revived for an entire operation (apart from “Crosville” – and that is in a different part of the country from the original one).

Why might this be?

I live in what was once “Midland Red” land. There’s been some comment in bus enthusiast circles about how National Express West Midlands’ new all-over subtle two-tone red might resemble the all-over red of the old Midland Red. Down the road in Worcester, the centenary of the 144 bus route prompted First to repaint two vehicles into historical representations of the old Midland Red livery. They are certainly eye-catching, but with First being the natural successor to the original Midland Red operation in the City, what might branding the entire operation “Midland Red” do? If the same parent company can hope to recapture the feelings of a golden age on the railways with its’ rebranding of GWR, why haven’t we seen a similar attempt on the buses?

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Does the new all-over red National Express West Midlands livery hark back to the old “Midland Red” days?

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the iconic Midland Red logo

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First Worcester’s “Midland Red” double decker – what if the whole fleet looked like this?

In the days before the Arriva brand, the old Midland Red North tried the “Midland” image (albeit with a shade of red the purists said was too dark to be compared with the original Midland Red), but it didn’t last long and corporate Arriva arrived.

First as a company has been involved in somewhat of an about-turn with it’s image in recent years. Under the leadership of Sir Moir Lockhead, the 1990s saw the removal of all of the old constituent bus company images and liveries into one basic First image, with purple and pink being the colours you saw everywhere from Devon to Aberdeen. “Transforming Travel” was the slogan attached, but if the marketeers were being bold, they were surely also at least partially blind to the truth that not all that much was actually “transformed” – in a positive sense at least.

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The First “corporate image” that swept away individual fleet liveries

First though were not the only ones with this idea. Stagecoach too sticks to one basic image throughout its bus operations (although the new “Kings City” branding for Winchester looks to be breaking this tradition). Arriva’s aquamarine colour is familiar throughout the land. It’s useful, maybe, for easy transfer of vehicles around the country to have one brand, but are these huge operations guilty of not recognising the inherent “localness” of bus operations? Go Ahead Group are the opposite of this. All of their buses are “locally” branded.

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“The King’s City” branding in Winchester – breaking the corporate Stagecoach image (pic: Hampshire Chronicle)

First are moving away from the rigid Moir days under the bus leadership of Giles Fearnley. Many of their operations now feature individual route branding and colours. There’s even been a bold experiment to do away with the First name altogether in one area – “The Buses of Somerset” has no trace of the “flying F” logo, or the famous purple/pink.

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“The Buses of Somerset” does away with any hint of FirstGroup association

These are modern interpretations of “local” in the bus world. But why has no-one gone the full circle and brought back an old name? Maybe the old “names” are copyrighted/owned by someone else – I’m not sure. In the example of Worcester, the buses ran with “First Midland Red” names before the First national brand came along. The most recent examples of new buses in this fleet feature the large “WORCESTER” name on the side with smaller “from First” words underneath.

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“WORCESTER from First” is the latest branding used by First in the area. How about “Midland Red from First”?

Is it really important? Guilty as I am in wallowing up to my armpits in nostalgia, and longing for the day when “Midland Red” returns to the streets as a fully-fledged bus operator, the first thoughts of every bus user is not the cuddly image of an image from 50-plus years ago – it is to get on board an on-time bus, driven courteously, litter-free and clean, for an acceptable fare.

Maybe a revamp, a re-brand or a full-length plunge into the glory days of yesteryear can be a partial catalyst to passengers and staff feeling happier about the operation, but of course there’s much more to this than just a new/old lick of paint.

It’s a bold move by First to reintroduce the GWR name, but they obviously feel it’s the right time to do it. Of course, it may disappear again in the future, should First lose the franchise, but that small advert in the corner of a magazine made me think differently about the company. Let’s hope a little bit of nostalgia will help make the future better for them.

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Eye Catcher – or Does it Matter?

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Did London’s “New Routemaster” (or “Boris Bus”) really make a big impression on the streets of the Capital? I’d rather like to think it did, with its smooth curves and outrageous triple-doors. But is a bus just a bus? If you aren’t into buses like me, how much is the design of the bus, and it’s livery / brand, a game changer – especially if you aren’t a regular user?

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London’s “New Routemaster” – making a big impression?

This I pondered briefly over a full-English breakfast, as I sat in the beautiful Worcestershire town of Great Malvern. This chic little part of middle England has just been treated to a small number of Wright Streetdeck double decker vehicles on it’s main bus route to Worcester. I’d just ridden one such in from the City and decided that a fry up was necessary after such an early get-up to reach here.

I turned this minor conundrum over in my head because today was the first time I had ridden on a Streetdeck. When this model appeared in the trade press, my first reaction wasn’t overly positive. However, “in the flesh”, it’s beginning to grow on me.

But that’s “design” for you. The more outrageous it gets, the more it divides opinion.

Let’s face it. Buses are usually boring. I’ve lost countless Twitter followers and Facebook friends over what I imagine to be raging incandescence at the appearance of more large faceless bus-like objects on their timelines. Others quiz me in the street over my obsession. A bus is a bus is a bus. They caught one to school, learned to drive at age 17 and won’t probably see the inside of one again until they get a free pass.

Or am I overly generalising? Whilst the “sticks” of bus lanes and car restrictions encourage motorists to try public transport, the image of the bus to the naked eye is surely also important as a “carrot”.

The older generation may well rave about the design classics of the original London Routemaster or, closer to home, the Midland Red D9  – both where the driver sat on his own at the front, you got on at the back, and the clippie took your fare. They were, undoubtedly, pleasing on the eye. (The buses, not the clippies, you understand, lest I be accused of lowering the tone…). Then came the 70s & 80s. Buses became square. A sort of “Max Headroom” of the roads. Hell, I could wax-lyrical for the next half an hour on the visual delights of the MCW Metrobus, but to your average Joe, it was a large metal box on wheels.

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London Routemasters – a “classic design”?

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Midland Red “D9”

It was the likes of Optare and then Wrights who broke this mould, bringing design back into the appearance of the humble bus. Even now, those 90s stalwarts of the bus world – the single deck Dennis Dart with Plaxton Pointer body and the ubiquitous Alexander ALX400 double decker – which strapped itself to various chassis – roam the streets, devoid of any personality whatsoever. So when Wrights unveiled the Gemini double decker body, with its swooping front windscreen resembling the mobile phone design of the day, and earning itself the nickname the “Nokia bus”, it was a game-changer. Buses looked “with it”. A bit more “modern”. But did that attract more people onto them?

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Dennis Dart / Plaxton Pointer – a “non”-classic design from the 1990s?

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MCW Metrobus – “box on wheels”?

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Alexander ALX400 – functional workhorse, but devoid of “design”? (followed by Wright Gemini “Nokia bus”)

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Wright Gemini (“Nokia bus”)

Livery and branding are very important. Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions company has been responsible for many an eye-catching product, and there are also others. Ray has even managed to make thy aforementioned ALX400s look sexy.

Did Wright’s “Nokia Bus” provide a wake-up call for their big rivals Alexander Dennis? Well, when the successor to the ALX400 appeared, it appeared so. The “Enviro 400” also looked like it had actually had some deep thought put into how it might look on the street. Both double decker designs must surely go down as “design classics” when future historians look back on the bus World in years to come.

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Alexander Dennis Enviro 400

And time moves on. Both manufacturers have updated their models further. Alexander Dennis now has the Enviro 400 “MMC” (“Major Model Change”) – although you can see the family resemblance to it’s older sister. Wrights now have the “Streetdeck” – which appears a major departure from it’s predecessor. Gone are the rounded swoops and swirls – now we have hard angles in place. It certainly catches your eye on the street if you haven’t seen one before.

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Alexander Enviro 400MMC (“Major Model Change”)

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Wright Streetdeck

So, full English fully consumed, I’m back out on the street hunting a Streetdeck to take me back from Great Malvern to Worcester.

First’s Worcester garage has received 4 of these beasts, and branded them in 44 route image, but the peak vehicle requirement on this route is higher, so we have a mix of vehicles appearing, which to me is a bit of a missed opportunity. I thought these buses might go onto the flagship 144 route, linking Worcester to Birmingham (which recently celebrated its Centenary as a route) but instead they’re on the 44. If they’ve gone to the trouble of branding them for the 44, it might have been good if they had a complete fleet of 44-branded vehicles. Instead, we have the impressive new Streetdecks, mixed in with 10 year-old plus single deckers – still in the old First livery, and some in need of a good wash, might I add. And seeing as First are moving away from the rigid “no localisation” era of Sir Moir Lockhead to a more free-wheeling spirit under Giles Fearnley, why not create a little bit of local pride on the 44 route, celebrating the life of that most famous Victorian composer Sir Edward Elgar, whose links with the area are well-known, with much of his greatest works said to be inspired by walking in the Malvern Hills. Just a thought.

There’s nothing “classical” about standing at a bus stop on a freezing cold November morning in Great Malvern. The 44s aren’t running to time and there’s some minor grumbling going on in the ever-increasing queue. A 44 finally appears, but it’s an older generation single decker. The crowd piles on, eager for a bit of warmth, but having seen the back-end of a Streetdeck embarking on a run around the greater part of Great Malvern, I opt to freeze a little more and await its arrival and subsequent departure for Worcester.

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older buses mingle with brand new ones on route 44

Another small queue of intending passengers join me in admiring the arrival of said Streetdeck, with its large, marauding purple front-end. “ooo this is new” comments one, before climbing aboard, scanning her pass and taking up position on one of the leather seats. I flash my £6.50 First Wyvern day ticket and bolt upstairs.

Whether these buses have “climate control” or whether the driver is playing silly beggars with the heater is unclear. First it’s nice and warm, then blowing cold. Then warm again. Our driver isn’t hanging around. Maybe the timing needs looking at on this route, as I noticed the same on the incoming journey. Either way, I’m a tad disappointed with the Streetdeck’s ride quality. First thing this morning, I’d ridden on one of National Express West Midlands’ E400MMCs as part of my effort to get to here, and they are a really superb ride. The Streetdeck, despite it’s leather-clad interior, seems more bumpy and jerky in comparison. These buses also have Wi-Fi fitted for the discerning smartphone user. The entry of the Streetdecks into service on route 44 had been delayed by the need to sort out low-hanging branches – there hasn’t been a regular double decker service around here for years. But it’s soon clear that there’s still work to be done – my journeys in both direction have been punctuated by foliage clattering into the front windscreen.

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Streetdeck’s leather interior

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The Streetdeck’s entry into service was delayed by the need to do some branch-pruning – but there is still work to be done!

Around 40 minutes later, we’re back in Worcester, where our Streetdeck mingles with some also recently-delivered Wright Streetlite single deckers, as well as the older models. There’s no paper timetables available for the 44 on the main bus station concourse, and whilst First Worcester’s general operation is on the up compared to, say, five years ago, you still get the impression that the local bus network here is something the regulars know about, but occasional users might find challenging to get their heads around. (The 44 also has various variants such as 44C, etc)

But let’s not be too harsh. New investment in buses is always welcome, and the double deck Streetdecks are certainly eye-catching. In terms of passenger comfort, my own thoughts are that the Enviro400MMCs are a better ride quality. First’s national policy of fitting new buses with leather seats is a mild “marmite” moment – some like it, some are less keen.

At least the users of route 44 are better off – if they happen to catch a journey with a Streetdeck on it.