The Railway Name Game

20 January 2009 (Last Updated January 20th, 2009 18:30)

Railway industry manufacturers have taken to distinctive product names in a big way. Neil Pulling looks at the development of brands in the international rail vehicle market.

The Railway Name Game

Creating a brand is essential to any business regardless of the industry but its widespread application in the railway vehicle sector is a relatively new phenomenon. It does, however, say a lot about the way the market has developed.

In decades gone by, the company's name covered most elements of its business, from the infrastructure through to peripherals like the catering and its marketing activities. Rolling stock was usually distinguished by a company's own notations, such as LNER A3 or DRG SVT 877 and was a label that could survive ownership changes. If the operator worked within one country this identity remained strong and if outside, manufacturers usually supplied most of the equipment and the designations would normally be those of the operator.

Take, for example, the Alsthom electric locomotive that had different designations in France (BB 7200) and the Netherlands (Class 1600) but was fundamentally the same vehicle. These and other such classes were successfully exported but had no publicised common name.

As rail has developed more horizontal integration with expansion along common activities like locomotive construction, there has been a heightened need to promote to more potential customers and by implication a more international market. Welcome to the world of the Prima, TRAXX and Eurosprinter.

More than a name

Branding by manufacturers has a long history, not least because of the need to distinguish between a firm's goods and those of its competitors. As product ranges grew, sub-branding became the new necessity leading to the product names themselves acquiring value. It was in the late 20th century that branding of railway motive power gained momentum and has since become common practice.

"With the growing requirement for cross-border, multi-system interoperability in Europe, the names of equipment with a capability to "go anywhere" have proven particularly successful."

Brevity and ease of reference clearly finds favour. When EMD gave their new construction the less-than-snappy-title JT42CWR/M – a runaway success built on reliability in a growing freight market – the UK Class 66 designation became its verbal shorthand. This tag was soon commonplace in mainland Europe and has now been adopted by the company itself in promotional materials.

Consistent with road vehicle manufacturers, so far rail counterparts have largely retained name links with the past, as with Siemens, Hitachi, Bombardier and Alstom (although the latter is a relaunched version of the previous Alsthom compound of Alsace and Thomson).

For company names, manufacturers have eschewed such constructs as Diageo or Aviva to indicate brand changes, as used respectively in the drinks and insurance businesses.

But for product ranges, the rail industry has played the name game with gusto and manufacturers now have a strong penchant for creating names alluding to the facets of its products.

Bombardier's Flexity suggests that the manufacturer is open to constructing variations; it alludes to customer responsiveness and conveys the idea of a light rail environment. Liberally spread around a range of diesel and electric multiple units, Siemens' Desiro name not so much suggests as shouts its appeal. The advantage of making up a product name such as this, or at least paying an agency to do so, is that names not drawn from a generic lexicon can more readily be nailed down with international copyrights.

International sales by the engineering giants have supplanted purely domestic markets, sparking a vogue for names that don't exist in any particular language. With the growing requirement for cross-border, multi-system interoperability in Europe, the names of equipment with a capability to "go anywhere" have proven particularly successful.

By using words than link to Latin-classical terms that might crop up in many languages, suggestion and implication can be built in. Words that have phonetic pronunciations also help to cross linguistic divides.

"A name can give momentum to sales but if the associations begin to turn negative they can stick just as strongly as any positive."

With Citadis, Alstom alludes to an urban setting and its more recent tram-train's Dualis name conveys the two spheres of operation. Its tagging of control systems as Urbalis helps keep it all tightly in the family.

Appealing to the masses

At times a good name appears to go looking for justification, with some highly strained origins as a rationale. 'Talent' would be a good association for most products, including a family of multiple units, yet somehow its assembly from Talbot Leichter Nahverkehrs Triebwagen, in reference to the originating manufacturer and the German technical terms, seems almost too good to be true.

Bombardier repeats the trick with "Nina" – RABe 525 in official Swiss classification – being spotted in the prosaic Niederflur Nahverkehrszug, dictating a low-floor local train. Stadler must also have been mightily relieved that in German or English its Flinker Leichter Innovativer Regional Triebzug or Fast Light Innovative Regional Train both gave the racy (and pronounceable) acronym FLIRT.

A name can give momentum to sales but if the associations begin to turn negative they can stick just as strongly as any positive, as Coca Cola found out with its Dasani bottled water withdrawn from the UK market during 2004 following adverse media coverage. Siemens tagged what was for a time the market-leading low-floor tram as Combino; this branding so much easier to promote than the letter/number titles that had gone before under Düwag's long history.

However, it was with launch customer Potsdam that structural defects manifested themselves, leading to a recall of the many fleets supplied. In rebuilt form the Combino continues to operate successfully and subsequently changes were made to the model range.

"Bombardier has created one of the most powerful brands in the international rail industry."

To denote this, suffixes such as Classic and Supra were added but damage to the basic brand had been done.

Magically, brand expansion seems to have the capacity for time travel, as Bombardier demonstrated with its Flexity name reaching backwards to incorporate products that existed before the Canadian company went global. This included the Eurotrams of Strasbourg, Porto and Milan, which were in place in 1991 and recently became known as 'Flexity Outlook' – an umbrella term that also covers the new Innsbruck trams.

Bombardier is also adept at using brand names as a tidying device for vehicles from subsumed companies, as with the very successful Adtranz K4000 tram now in the Flexity Swift range. Reaching back to the DB Class 185 platform and with many new options added for its host of customers – under the TRAXX name that is simple, relevant and with one pronunciation – Bombardier has created one of the most powerful brands in the international rail industry. Through Juliet, Shakespeare played with the notion "what's in a name?" A few centuries later, it would appear quite a lot.