New Rail Alphabet

The New Rail Alphabet by Henrik Hubel of A2/SW/HK with Margaret Calvert

Here’s another beauty for fans of grotesque typefaces, such as Suisse BP Int’l.

Developed by Henrik Hubel of A2/SW/HK with collaboration from Margaret Calvert, the creator behind the original Rail Alphabet, this typeface is a revival of the British Rail Alphabet developed in the early sixties. The website itself notes:

Originally drawn in two versions, as a constituent part of an integral signing system it first appeared in the United Kingdom’s National Health Hospitals and, subsequently, British Rail and Danish Rail stations, followed by all BAA airports.

The New Rail Alphabet typeface package comes in six weights: Off-White, White, Light, Medium, Bold and Black with non-aligning numerals, corresponding italics and a set of Eastern European characters.

The original Rail Alphabet as seen for Glasgow Airport

More examples of the original Rail Alphabet used in signage systems in British airports

An example of the original Rail Alphabet used for signage in an NHS hospital

Images above and source material courtesy of Margaret Calvert and A2/SW/HK ©2009.

The pictures above show Margaret Calvert’s original Rail Alphabet as deployed across various British Airports and Hospital signs.

Working on the New Rail Alphabet typeface

Scanning and tracing the original alphabet

The original Rail Alphabet

The New Rail Alphabet

The complete New Rail Alphabet in action.

I really rather enjoy this typeface—there’s something about it that reminds me of Phil Martin’s Heldustry

URW++ Heldustry designed by Phil Martin, 1978

…and I think it’s because both Heldustry and New Rail Alphabet make good uses of the Squircle superellipse in the general shape of their letterforms.

A Squircle. Remember, a Squircle is not a rounded square

If we compare New Rail Alphabet to the world-famous Helvetica Neue, we can see what makes New Rail Alphabet unique.

Differences between Helvetica Neue and New Rail Alphabet

Unlike Suisse BP Int’l, which I reviewed in a previous post, New Rail Alphabet features letterforms that are slightly more narrow than Helvetica Neue and a slightly taller x-height. The discerning eye will note, as well, that New Rail Alphabet uses a far more consistent stroke width throughout. Observe in Helvetica Neue, for example, how the stroke thins out a little on the top and bottom of the bowl. In New Rail Alphabet, the stroke width is much more consistent around the bowl and rest of the character.

Like Helvetica Neue, the finial of New Rail Alphabet’s ‘a’ terminates completely flat horizontally, but the base of the stem has a much less pronounced curve than Helvetica Neue.

Also, like Suisse BP Int’l, the top of the bowl in New Rail Alphabet’s ‘a’ connects directly to the stem with no curve, producing a much more solid shape. This contrasts against Helvetica Neue where this is a pronounced curve connecting the top of the bowl to the stem, giving that famous ‘teardrop’ shape in the counter.

Differences between Helvetica Neue and New Rail Alphabet

We can see more of New Rail Alphabet’s Squircle shape in action here. Note how, not only is New Rail Alphabet’s ‘e’ slightly narrower, it’s also less circular. This is the Squircle in action, and it features in practically every letterform of New Rail Alphabet, giving it a more robust, strong and perhaps ‘industrial’ feel compared to Helvetica Neue.

Looks Good! Where Can I Get It?

You can check out New Rail Alphabet on A2’s own A2-Type site, but it also has its own dedicated website, where you can see the typeface in action. Happily, the typeface is also available as a web font.

Be warned though: the standard desktop edition of the typeface requires one hundred of your sterling pounds for each weight. Yowsers.

I originally discovered this typeface via TypeToken. Ya’ll should definitely check it out.

Ian Cylkowski aka Izo

Logo & Identity Design

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