The history of yellow

As Elizabeth Line trains prepare to become the first to run with all-black panels since the steam era, Greg Morse, lead operational feedback specialist at the RSSB, takes a look back at the fascinating history of the famous yellow front end.

Imagine being trackside on a warm summer’s morning. It’s 1952 and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky. In one direction, you can see for miles as the metals stretch out in front of you; in the other, the line curves away, disappearing down behind a bank lined with trees. It’s from that direction that the next train’s due. No problem for you as you work alone in the cess: it’ll probably be worked by a ‘Black Five’ and be audible for miles, the engine barking as it struggles up the gradient – plenty of time to get to a position of safety before it’s upon you. 

Now imagine being in the same spot nine years later: it’s still bright, you can still see for miles in one direction and the line still curves away in the other. The next train’s due from the latter, only this time it’s not a ‘Five’ on the front, but a new-fangled ‘Brush 2’ – a diesel, a demon to some, a necessity to others. No time to muse on that now, though – you’ve got work to do, and not much time to do it in. You get stuck in. You’re so stuck in you almost miss the horn as the train rounds the bend, almost fail to pick up your tools, almost fail to get to a place of safety before it rumbles past... 

The trouble was – in comparison to steam engines – diesels were quiet, electrics quieter still. Yet they had to come, and were coming – though you couldn’t always hear them when they did! You couldn’t always see them either, the green livery of the diesels often blending them into rural backgrounds. But what if there was some way they could be made easier to see? It would certainly help trackworkers, and help farmers using occupation crossings too. 

The solution was simple: paint a ‘bright yellow panel’ to the fronts of the new locomotives and units. From 1961, it was done; it was done a bit more when the new ‘corporate BR identity’ was born a few years later, a full yellow end becoming almost a second livery colour against the cool Monastral Blue of that design.

These beacons in the dark, beacons in the distance, glowed for many years, each a testament to the safety of those on or about the line. Yet time changes everything, technology more than most. 

By the early 70s, the Class 87 electrics were emerging with new central headlights, similar to those that would adorn the diesel-powered 56s a few years later. And a 1971 report noted that such lights improved the visibility of trains to track workers even more. 

665 the test train running into London Liverpool Street station edit

And when the 47s converted for push-pull working between Edinburgh and Glasgow emerged with a new design of lamp from the end of 1979, it set a precedent that would be compounded five years later, when a call came for the many front lighting systems in use on BR to be standardised. The same report also contained the first record of the current arrangement of two headlamps, two marker lamps and two tail lamps on each end of each loco or traction unit. 

As the 80s drew on, more and more classes emerged with square-cased headlamps, though the yellow end remained. Nowadays, headlight technology has improved so much that, if a lamp arrangement compliant with the minimum requirements in the Technical Specifications for Operability (TSI) – which requires two headlamps, three marker lamps and two tail lamps, all of specific luminescent properties – is used on a loco or unit, then the yellow end can be any colour (though of course ‘any colour’ still includes yellow, and many may decide to stick with that golden hue for continuity’s sake or if it suits their particular needs better). Note that a company changing to ‘non-yellow’ must consult all affected parties and undertake a suitable and sufficient risk assessment like the one set out in the Common Safety Method on Risk Evaluation and Assessment Regulations. All this has been embodied in new audibility and visibility requirements for rail vehicles within Railway Group Standard GM/RT2131, which came into force in March 2016.  

Of course, vehicles with headlamps that are not TSI-compliant will still require a yellow front end. Similarly, yellow plant still has to be yellow all over, and shunting locomotives and snowploughs will still need forward-facing surfaces to be painted yellow with black chevrons where it’s reasonable to provide them. 

It looks weird after all this time, but even the black ends of the new Elizabeth Line units should provide sufficient contrast with their headlights to enhance their visibility to staff on the ground. But the need to maintain those headlights will be more important than ever before going forward.

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Billd   05/09/2017 at 11:41

In the early 60s, I watched the BR type 2s from Thornaby depot passing my house and, before yellow was rolled out across the diesel fronts, I saw fluorescent panels of green, pink, orange for a short period (but not fluorescent yellow) although I may have missed it.

JOHN GREENWOOD   05/09/2017 at 12:27

At 64 years of age I remember the days when LT did not trust the electric tail lamps of Underground trains. An illuminated oil lamp was mandatory.

Mark Hare   05/09/2017 at 15:28

Interesting article, however in the scenario described by Mr Morse, if a train is approaching from around a curve, the front might as well be black, purple or green as a yellow panel or front end would give no more warning of a train's approach than any other colour.

Andrew Gwilt   06/09/2017 at 00:17

So new trains that are to be classified in the Class 3xx will have yellow ends. Whilst new trains in the Class 7xx and Class 8xx won't have yellow ends. Or it doesn't matter if they don't have yellow ends on all classified multiple units.

David   06/09/2017 at 20:44

Class 345s don't have yellow cab ends. Class 700, 707 and 800-802 do. Not that easy Andrew.

Andrew Gwilt   07/09/2017 at 00:09

I have seen these new trains with no yellow cab ends. David.

David   07/09/2017 at 11:45

Which particular trains? The GWR Class 802 does have yellow, though the TPE units won't.

@Al__S   07/09/2017 at 14:46

I'd love to know more about the actual research- how the specific colour and minimum area were devised. The other thing I'd love to know is if the "noticeability" of yellow panels and lights is properly assessed. This is a different thing to "visibility", which is how easy something is to see if you're looking for it. How easily it is noticed is the important factor. Though ultimately it does come down to having an attentive look out. As is demonstrated by drivers of high vehicles several times a day to the detriment of the railway when they hit bridges, you can make something as visible as you like, humans are very fallible.

100Andthirty   08/09/2017 at 08:47

Interesting article. I remember yellow panels followed by full yellow fronts appearing on EMUs about 30 years after they went into service. The is a logical flaw in the argument though. The old "black five" alerted the senses of hearing and feel which could be stimulated even whilst working. Yellow fronts stimulate the sense of sight and this sense can only be stimulated if someone is looking for it. Hence the nature of work had to change too; the critical role of the lookout.

Andrew Gwilt   09/09/2017 at 01:23

Ok. I proved it wrong again David. Goodness sake.

Jon   09/09/2017 at 10:44

He was only asking you a question, not having a go at you.

Andrew Gwilt   09/09/2017 at 19:17

Fine. Ok. Anymore people going to judge me. Because it's soon going to get old and it's no potion arguing on this article.

Frankh   10/09/2017 at 23:43

The lookout has been mentioned but no one has noted the horn warning to track workers which has happened for years and the driver acknowledgement horn once the all clear is flagged by the lookout.

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