First Group, who operate the historic rail line which runs from London to the West of England, have an ambitious goal: to drive up standards on their line and in the industry at large, and to recapture the romance of rail.

With huge investment in the line underway, they needed a rebrand that could symbolise the change for the public and act as a rallying cry for their staff. Fortunately, a name already existed which captured their idea perfectly.

GWR bench
Original GWR bench at Hammersmith station

Great Western Railway, or GWR, was the original name of the network. When it was built in the 1830s to the design of 29-year-old engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the network was of unprecedented size and scale. It became famous as a ‘holiday line’ taking holidaymakers from London to the British seaside (it was nicknamed ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’). It became part of British Rail when it was nationalised in 1948.

Far more than just a network name, GWR is rich in association and heritage. It’s synonymous with the magic and majesty of rail’s past, of chugging steam engines, coal-faced engineers and shrieking whistles echoing across valleys. It comes from an era where rail invoked delight, not disappointment.

Design which does the historic brand justice was critical. We explored early conceptual identity work by Pentagram which ranged from ‘flagship’ touchpoints like engine livery, to the more experiential elements like timetables and in-journey menus.

Our consumer research highlighted the importance of striking a balance between the heritage of the line and the future-facing ambitions of the rebrand. The output provided strategic thinking on how design can be used to navigate this challenge, and detailed guidance on how the identity can best be applied to engage consumers in the idea.

The company will, of course, have to work hard to live up the standards it connotes with its new identity. But it serves a great of example of how design can symbolise and inspire change. GWR have put passion, pride and purpose back at the heart of their railway.