Travelling The Island Line (or the vaguely interesting tale of a company that seems to have absolutely no interest in corporate branding)

Published on 15 November 2006 in , , , , ,

So as I mentioned in my last post, last week we spent a few days relaxing on the Isle of Wight. Because we don’t have a car (thankfully), we went via public transport, catching the train to Portsmouth then getting the catamaran to Ryde.

We were staying in Shanklin which is the final stop of the Isle of Wight’s eight mile train system – running from the pier end at Shanklin, mere moments after you get off the catamaran – which meant we got to enjoy travelling the entire route of Wight’s trains. The trains are operated by Island Line, the smallest railway franchise in the UK, which is owned by Stagecoach.

Island Line train at Shanklin Station

As someone who lives in London, the first thing you notice when travelling with them is that something is vaguely familiar about Island Line’s trains. That’s because they’re actually old tube trains, first introduced on the London Underground in 1938 and withdrawn in the late 1980s after nearly fifty years faithful service for the capital. Despite their age, a small number were bought by British Rail, refurbished and sent over to the Isle of Wight. They were bought in to replace another set of former Tube trains which at that point, were themselves 66 years old.

Anyone with a few mathematical brain cells might have noticed that the current trains have outlived them age wise, being nearly 69 years old themselves. And they’ll last a bit longer yet – Island Line’s franchise will be merged with South West Trains in the new year in a new franchise to last until 2016. Stagecoach, which will retain the franchises, has said it has no plans to replace the trains, which by that point, will have been running for 78 years in service…

Still there’s always hope for some “new” trains. Indeed, by 2012, the trains used on London’s Victoria Line will have been withdrawn – young at only 45 years old. If they can hang on, the Bakerloo Line’s trains will be replaced by 2019, and they’d only be 47 years old!

By the way, if you are wondering why they use old tube trains on the Isle of Wight, it’s because there’s a very tight tunnel at Ryde which means they can’t run standard trains down the line. However tube trains fit nicely. And hey, why buy new, when you can get second hand?

Another frank oddity about Island Line’s trains is the branding. In that… well… there isn’t any.

Think about that for a minute. We’re in an age where branding is one of the most important things in the world for a company. Especially a major transport operation like Stagecoach which must have spent millions over the years rebranding various companies it took over, to take its name. And indeed, the official company name is indeed Stagecoach Island Line. But just take a look at the company logo…

Island Line

Now I don’t know what Island Line’s logo was when they privatised it, but what’s the betting it was just a diamond with “Island Line” written in it, and that all Stagecoach did was shove the Stagecoach logo in front of it at some point. Even better, the Stagecoach logo they use, was abandoned by the rest of the company several years ago.

So popular is the Island Line logo that it barely appears on the timetable and doesn’t appear once on the Island Line website, which incidentally, looks like the Managing Director’s son made it in 1998 and hasn’t been changed since. (Actually, looking at the Way Way Back Machine, it appears the website was actually introduced towards the end of 2001. More amusingly, they were still proclaiming Merry Christmas to their customers at the end of January 2002.)

Island Line train on Ryde Pier

Whilst I might sound like I’m mocking, I actually love this. In an age where companies are so obsessed with having an immaculate, perfect image, Stagecoach Island Line is running around with rusting trains which are painted bright blue with mutli-coloured dinosaurs on them. When we got the train to Shanklin on our first day, the guard was wearing a shirt that proclaimed that he worked for South West Trains (a completely different company) whilst the train driver on the wasn’t even wearing a uniform – just a pair of trousers and a jumper.

On our way back to Ryde to cross to the mainline, the driver was wearing a tie with an old British Rail logo, whilst our train was graced with (for some reason by) a whopping three guards for some reason who were again wearing an assortment of South West Trains gear, complemented with the occasional Island Line tie if you were lucky.

Oh and if that wasn’t amazing enough, the train we got back to Ryde wasn’t even in Island Line’s corporate livery of “bright pink T-rex”. Nope, instead we travelled across the Isle of Wight in a seventy year old tube train which was proudly painted red with the words “London Transport” written on the side!

Island Line train in London Transport livery

Now lets think about this for a moment. Can you imagine Virgin Trains (for example) running one of its trains in full British Rail regalia? Or Stagecoach Manchester running one of its oldest buses in GM Buses’s orange and brown?

When you travel by Island Line, it really does feel like the railway company that time forgot. That Stagecoach took on the franchise as a bet and has just let it get on with its merry existence ever since. You can picture it being the kind of place that rookie managers get sent there learn the ropes…

“So you’re the new guy are you? Come, let me show you what you’ve got to play with. This here is the company logo. Crap init? That’s why we don’t use it. What do you mean, why don’t we change it? Why? Cos we have a marketing budget of £10.50 lad! Oh yeah, and these are the trains. They’re a bit rusty on the roof, but hey, waste not want not mate!”

It’s not just the train company that time forgot – it’s the train company where managers get to learn how to run a company where there’s about 15p to repaint the trains, so it isn’t done often.

And you know what? It’s fantastic! It’s absolutely great that the corporate masters of Island Line just leave it to get on with things. That they don’t seem to care one bit about corporate branding or mission statements. And it’s a testament to the skills of their staff that they keep a series of trains that are long past the scrap heap, in regular service day in day out.

Long live corporate indifference! Long live Island Line!

1 Comment

  • Ian Goodson says:

    I’m from the Isle of Wight, but have lived in the North for about six years. I love Island Line. I grew up with it. I hope they don’t abandon it when the trains finally do give up the ghost. It is a much needed service on the isle of Wight. The bus service is extortionate whereas the train is far cheaper. I hope South West trains invest some money into buying a few of the new (45 year old!) trains than LT will be getting rid of over the next couple of years.