diamond geezer

 Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A report by the Conservative Party on the London Assembly has suggested introducing sponsorship deals to rename London Underground lines and stations as a way to fund a freeze in fares. You probably saw the story yesterday. You might have nodded and said "yes, anything that gets my fares down is a good thing." Or you might have spluttered in horror at this erosion of long cherished values. I'm in the latter camp.

There's a lot of fun to be had in thinking up possible sponsored tube station names. We had a go on this blog back in in 2006, oh how we laughed, and Paul later knocked up a sponsored tube map that's been doing the rounds ever since. Imagine the delights of NatWestminster, Pimmslico, Aldigate, Knorrthwood and Burger King's Cross St Pancras. And now stop laughing. In a London where the name of the nearest tube station defines the locality, do we really want to offer up this privilege to the highest bidder?

What we'd likely see, if the recommendations of this report were accepted, is a flurry of naming rights dished out in sponsorship deals with large companies with international reputations. Banks, airlines, that sort of thing... indeed precisely the kind of businesses who've already signed up to sponsor the bike hire scheme and the cablecar. The report suggests something like this...

I shudder to look at that mock-up, even with only two stations tweaked. Burberry by Bond Street is a ghastly mouthful of a name, although rest assured that's currently only an Assembly Member's suggestion. Imagine someone announcing that over the loudspeakers every time you ride through on the train, or seeing that emblazoned along every platform. Plus Bond Street isn't even the nearest station to Burberry's Mayfair store, that'd be Green Park, but in this new world geography is no longer important. Forget using the tube map to guide you efficiently round London, instead its purpose would be to encourage you into a shop selling posh plaid handbags. And as for Virgin Euston, what an appalling concept. It's the mainline station, if any, that ought to rebranded after Sir Richard Branson's empire, not the tube station alongside. Plus he's only got his West Coast franchise for a few more years, and then there'd be the expense of rebranding or unbranding all over again. Only a politician with no sense of irony could consider prostituting the tube map under the Virgin name.

And the report doesn't want to stop there. We should rebrand tube lines it says, because not to do so is throwing money away. They do it in Spain, it says, with Line 2 in Madrid currently rebranded as Line 2 Vodafone. I'm sure an airline would snap up the Piccadilly line, and any big financial company would love to rename the Waterloo and City. But I suspect the strongest business case would be for the creation of the Westfield Central line, conveniently joining new stations at Westfield Shepherd's Bush and Westfield Stratford City. Imagine the clout of running rebranded trains beneath Oxford Street to lure customers away to rival retail premises, it's PR perfection. And yet stop to think of the communities such a change might disempower. There's far more to Stratford than the megamall by the Olympics, and yet such sponsorship would hijack the neighbourhood for corporate greed.

How about sponsoring London buses instead? In a survey carried out for the report more than 40% of respondents were in favour. But I can't imagine quite how this would work, at least in any practical way. Painting all the buses on some route red and emblazoning them with Coke bubbles perhaps, rather than renumbering the route to Wormwood Scrubs as 7-Up. Or how about sponsoring stations in situ rather than on the map, in much the same way that various suburban National Rail stations are already "Earlsfield, home of Greens the Letting Specialists". The report is aiming higher, perhaps "Knightsbridge for Harrods" or "Green Park for Fortnum and Mason", more with an eye for funnelling tourists than informing Londoners.

So come on, asks the report, what's the problem? TfL has already slapped Emirates all over the tube map, so why hesitate at more? And they nearly, oh so nearly, sold the naming rights to Oxford Circus to a wine brand a few years back, so how about actually going through with it next time? Surely the Underground has a history of rebranded station names anyway, like Surrey Docks becoming Surrey Quays or Gillespie Road becoming Arsenal. Let's build on that foundation, they argue, and flog off more for cash. Apparently all these changes are necessary "if London’s transport network is to remain one of the best in the world", but that's only if you're thinking funding and not reputation.

Thankfully TfL are standing firm in the face of commercial pressure, with no plans to change their policy on station rebranding. Even the boss they currently have in charge of making money out of the network says so.
Graeme Craig, TfL’s commercial development director, said: "This report is well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s right to sell off Tube stations to someone waving a cheque book and offering a bad pun. A Tube map is to show people where a station is and renaming would bring about confusion, especially among the 30 million visitors on the network every year. The mayor has in the past ruled out the renaming of stations, largely due to the cost of changing the thousands of signs and maps across the network."
Don't underestimate how much it would cost to properly rename a station. Every roundel and nameplate on the station itself. Every enamel line diagram on every station down the line, on every line. Every line map on every train running through the renamed station. And every other relevant sign tucked away in any corner of any station anywhere. For example Shepherds Bush Market was renamed five years ago, but that name change is still heralded by manky labels in the wrong sized font slapped over the original station name on line diagrams around the network. A crappy little sticker won't do for a commercial contract, this change would have to be done properly... and then probably undone later when the company might not be around to pay for it.

TfL may be outspokenly reticent to rebrand existing stations, which is to their credit, but there is one area where they have no such qualms. That's new infrastructure with no heritage, and nothing for the public to get upset about changing. The Cycle Hire scheme launched fully branded, likewise the cablecar, and there's nothing to suggest future new schemes won't be the same. The next places we should be worried about are on the Northern line extension down to Battersea, or Prada Battersea as it could become, with an intermediate stop at Sainsbury's Nine Elms. Crossrail could become a string of marketing pearls, to great horror, if this policy were left unchecked. The report also suggests funding future extensions via big business, for example "the DLR extension to Dagenham Dock, perhaps sponsored by Ford, or the Tram extension to seek sponsorship from a business based in South London." No, I can't think of a likely candidate either.

Essentially the argument comes down to money versus heritage. To many Londoners, it doesn't matter what you call the Underground so long as they get to pay less for their tickets. Indeed the entire premise of the report is a perceived need to "bear down on fares", as if increasing fare rises in line with inflation is somehow an abdication of responsibility. Hell, if that's the main issue why don't we sell off everything? The Amazon British Library. The Mastercard Houses of Parliament. Sky Broadband Queen Elizabeth II. Imagine how much public service value you could get for flogging off those. Indeed, as the report says, "if this finance can be used for a purpose that is clearly in the public interest, then significant advantages for Londoners exist". Buckingham Disney Palace it is, then.

Call me stupid, but I value heritage and clarity over money. I'd rather pay the same or a bit more to travel on an untarnished network, rather than flogging the family silver in a one-off deal to save a few pence per journey. For now, thankfully, TfL agrees. The next station is not yet Virgin Euston.

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