Paint the Trains in Themes

Most urban rail networks in the world use color to distinguish lines, either alone or in combination with line names or numbers. Moreover, most of these networks have different train fleets for different metro lines – for examples, the trains on the Northern line are used only on the Northern line, and the trains on Paris Metro Line 1 are used only on Line 1. The interiors of these trains have static line maps dedicated to the lines they serve. Occasionally, the trains are also painted in their thematic colors, as in Boston. So, why not extend this and not only paint trains in their thematic colors, but also have different art on each trainset, using the thematic color?

A blue line, like the Piccadilly line or the RER B, would use drawings that incorporate the color blue in some essential way. For example, one trainset could depict an endless ocean, one could depict the sky, one could depict glass-clad skyscrapers that appear blue, and so on.


The key here is to make each trainset visually distinct and recognizable. Part of the reason is pure art: it introduces more interesting variability to a mundane activity, serving the same purpose as street sculptures. This exists in Japan to some extent, with public mascots and Hello Kitty trainsets, but this could generalize to every trainset. In a large city, this would require finding several dozen different paint schemes per color, ideally each by a different artist using a variety of styles.

But there’s another reason for this scheme: it makes it easier for passengers to remember which train they were on if they lost something or wish to report a crime. Right now, trains are tracked by model number, which passengers have no reason to remember after getting off the train. In contrast, a heraldic system is easier for passengers to retain, especially if the art covers both the exterior and the interior of the vehicle.

For the latter reason, it’s fine to be repetitive and paint every car in a trainset with the same scheme: passengers can roughly remember if they were near the front or back of the train, so if they lost something on the train, they can give enough information to reduce the search space to maybe two cars. Trainsets on modern urban rail systems are almost always permanently coupled, often in open gangways – even New York permanently couples cars into half-trains and joins two sets at a time to form a train, making it feasible to associate paint schemes with entire sets rather than individual cars.


The choice of art should rely on local history, geography, mythology, and culture whenever possible. For example, in the Eastern United States, one red trainset could depict brilliant fall foliage, but in Europe, trees do not turn red in the autumn so the reference would not be easily understood. In Japan, trees turn red in the spring and not the fall, so a red trainset could be painted with the cherry blossom. While Paris does not associate red with the color of leaves in any season, it was historically a center for impressionist art, so one blue trainset could have an impressionistic painting of foliage depicting it in blue.

Iconic food may be another intensely local element to paint in some cities. Everyone in New York knows what a bagel, a New York-style pizza, and a hero sandwich are, and New Yorkers of all ethnic and social groups eat them. At the deli, the professor and the security guard may well order the same pastrami hero. The same is true of döner and currywurst in Berlin, and bento boxes and yakitori in Tokyo.

Mythology and history add more recognizable symbols that are specific to the region or country. London and Paris may each find famous battles to commemorate, just as London names one of its intercity train stations after Waterloo and Paris names one of its after Austerlitz. An American city, especially Washington, may depict Union troops in the Civil War or the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Every major city can find an episode of its labor history to paint on one of its trainsets, in red of course. Mythology can add recognizable elements, such as fire-breathing dragons in red, Poseidon in blue, and pots of gold in yellow. Those elements would naturally look differently in a non-Western city like Tel Aviv or Singapore, but the principle is the same.

Diverse cities especially benefit from being able to depict their various cultural backgrounds, making different trainsets more visually distinct. Paris can paint some of its green and black trains with Arabic calligraphy, New York and Chicago can depict black Union troops with blue uniforms, Washington can depict the March on Washington with a blue sky or green lawn background, London can depict the Windrush and lotus art and Muslim South Asian architecture. These cities are all predominantly Western, but have large and growing minorities from non-Western backgrounds or from backgrounds with different takes on Western cultural production (such as black and Hispanic Americans), and should reflect the majority culture as well as the minorities, treating the transit network as a microcosm of the entire population.

Commercial culture and advertising

The plan should be to keep each design for a long time, potentially the entire life of the trainset, or at least through a midlife refurbishment. History, mythology, and geography all provide themes that are sufficiently long-run to remain relevant over the long life of a train.

In some cases, commercial properties can both be expected to exist for a long time and have well-known thematic colors. Examples include Star Wars and the iconic light saber colors, the best-known Pokemon, Hello Kitty, many superheroes, and the Smurfs. Transit agencies could enter long-term advertising contracts with Disney, Nintendo, and other long-lived corporations producing popular culture, and paint their properties on trainsets.

Advertising on the subway has a long history, and can coexist with painting the train if the regular ads are contained to the usual posters. It’s already spilling into painting an entire train: the Hello Kitty train is one example, but negative examples exist as well, when New York wraps an entire subway trainset in an ad for a television show that will be forgotten in a few years.

This kind of long-term advertising, in contrast, reinforces the recognizability of individual trainsets as no two trainsets should ever be painted with the same property (though trains of different colors may be painted with different Pokemon, or one with Jedi and one with Sith, etc.). Moreover, the paint scheme should be stable over 20 years – temporary modifications to help advertise a new film, video game, TV series, or book in the franchise should cost extra, and potentially be treated as regular ad posters.

However, there should be a limit to commercialization: the majority of subway paint schemes should not be based on global brands, but on local factors. Pokemon is everywhere, but the cherry blossom, recognizable skylines, picturesque mountains, and historical battles are specific to a country or region.


Just as cities often have art exhibits at subway stations, and just as they sometimes paint the trains on each color line with the color it’s named after, subway and regional rail networks can paint trains individually in thematic colors. In the largest cities, like New York and London, this could well involve more than a thousand distinct paint schemes; this is fine – those cities have enough artists and enough inspiration for a thousand trainsets.

Overall, the combination of some commercial properties with various aspects of history, geography, tourism, food, and mythology, curated from the majority group as well as from various ethnic and religious minorities, is exactly the mosaic that makes the city’s culture. One of the two prime reasons to do this is as a tool to help passengers remember what train they were on. But the other one is art, which simultaneously is aesthetic and sends a message: on the train we are all New Yorkers, or Londoners, or Parisians, or Berliners.


  1. Herbert

    In Nuremberg, the U1 which serves Fürth, a city associated with the color green and cloverleafs is not currently the “green line”. Furthermore, I don’t think people in Langwasser would much appreciate having to ride in “Fürth subways”. Keeping a separate set of trainsets for U2 and U3 makes no sense and is not done, so those two lines would have to find a common design scheme…

    • Alon Levy

      Boston names its subway colors after specific areas, but on the Red and Green Lines it’s the rich side of town (Harvard and the Emerald Necklace), on the Orange Line it’s an old, now-obscure name of a street (Washington Street, ex-Orange Street), and on the Blue Line it’s the harbor, so the residents of Cambridge and Newton do not have to ride trains named after Dorchester, Roxbury, or East Boston.

  2. michaelrjames

    Like the Qantas planes–beginning in the ’90s IIRC–with their stunning Aboriginal dot-paintings.

    Sure, why not. The best metro stations (Moscow, Stockholm, Paris …) already have some unique decoration or motifs. Though one suspects the logical endpoint is a skin that is a full electronic display that can be programmed and changed at will, inevitably turned to commercial purposes. I am also not keen on those displays that cover all of the sides of buses including the windows, with dot printing that nevertheless obstructs the view of those travelling on the bus.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the full-size wraps are terrible. They were part of my regular commute in undergrad, the bus got me home faster than the MRT and the line I rode was covered with this dot print, I think of the SBS logo rather than an ad. But it’s perfectly possible to paint the side of a train without covering the windows. For one, I don’t think the windows ever extend below the top of the seat back.

  3. Untangled

    Only as long as the windows don’t get covered in shit like BVG train windows.

  4. Rover030

    I like the idea, though I wonder how it will work with EU rules demanding (mainline?) trains to have doors contrasting with the rest of the train. I guess you could simply paint the doors white or black (and put the operator logo etc. on them) and have the rest of the train as a canvas, but that doesn’t leave a lot of room, especially considering the windows.

  5. Mikel

    This is perhaps one of the few areas where rail operators can learn from airlines! Norwegian, for example, puts a portrait of a different historical character on the tail of each of its planes,

    I totally agree on decorating the inside of trains, both on “Recognizability” and “Culture” grounds. However I’m not sure about painting the outside — in the rapid transit system I’m more familiar with, the Bilbao metro, it would destroy the minimalistic, glass-and-concrete homogeneity; but in systems with already artistic stations like Moscow or Stockholm, I’m sure local artists could come up with really cool designs.

    Another caveat concerns branched lines. If the aim is to have each trainset have its own identity, wouldn’t it be a little confusing if its terminus changed every time you saw it? (unless it’s a Schrödinger-themed train, I guess…)

    • michaelrjames

      unless it’s a Schrödinger-themed train

      In fact that applies to Hello Kitty: it’s not a question of a live or a dead cat because in fact it’s not a cat at all (it’s a human child!).

      On a similar theme, I disagree with your preference for internal versus external decoration. I couldn’t cope with the hyperpink kawaii culture of that Hello Kitty train.

      • Mikel

        It doesn’t need to be garish. You can have decoration that is more stylish than dull grey plastic while keeping it minimalistic. Alon’s idea about autumn leaves is good and you could make many variations on it. For example, have each line or each trainset be assigned to a local tree, or to a park the line stops at with its specific diversity of plants and animals.

        It can be a good way of fostering a connection between city dwellers and their natural surroundings, too. A few years ago my local transit authority decided to paint on the side of all its buses a stylized version of an endangered tiny frog that lived just outside the city, as a way of advertising the eco-friendliness of public transport.

        • Herbert

          Some French cities deliberately gave their trams unusual “snouts” even tho that makes them more expensive…

        • michaelrjames

          Actually changing the internal decoration is very expensive so I’m pretty sure they will only do the outside. That Hello Kitty shinkansen is a special case and IIRC it charges higher prices.

          • Andrew in Ezo

            Actually, the price to ride is the normal unreserved shinkansen fare, the train is a daily all-stops Kodama service (the up Kodama #730 and the down Kodama #741) with a majority of non-reserved seating, so in fact its a bit cheaper than the Nozomi services, which mainly have reserved seating. The use of Hello Kitty by JR West is to drum up patronage on the less congested Kodama, and as Hello Kitty is popular among Asian tourists, also promote inbound tourism in the Chukoku region of Japan. FWIW the previous trainset on this service was painted/wrapped in an Evangelion theme.

    • Alon Levy

      If the trunk line has a strong identity, it shouldn’t be a problem. So for example different red trainsets in Stockholm would be associated with the Red Line, but not with specific termini of it. This is fine – even though the Red Line has some really strong branches, people at the KTH stop realize it’s part of a bigger line so some trains go to their stop and some serve Ropsten instead.

  6. DW Rowlands

    One thing that might constrain the locations that could be illustrated on a particular line is the desire not to illustrate a location / potential destination on a line that doesn’t go to it because that’s where the color makes sense. You don’t necessarily want to have a trainset on the Blue Line show the ocean if it’s not the line that goes anywhere near the ocean.

    (A semi-related awkward thing in DC: tourists, and even sometimes residents who aren’t long-time locals, often think that the “Mount Vernon Square” station on the Yellow and Green lines must be where Mount Vernon is, and sometimes try to ride it to that station to get there. In fact, George Washington’s slave labor camp is located well beyond the range of Metro.)

    • EJ

      As i understand it, it’s similarly common for tourists in London to take the tube to Stratford station, and then wonder why they can’t find Shakespeare’s house.

      • AlphaGamma

        Or in fact to Abbey Road DLR station and look for the Beatles zebra crossing- this is common enough that DLR station has a sign, with numerous Beatles puns, explaining that the crossing is near St. John’s Wood station in a completely different part of London about 8 miles to the West.

  7. EJ

    You can color-code trains in Boston because all the different lines have incompatible equipment so they can only be used on one line. LA tried this with its light rail but equipment gets swapped around so much for operational reasons that it only notionally works at this point.

      • adirondacker12800

        And in New York you want to start running brown trains on the orange line you have to repaint them. Which delays doing it. And costs money. Not that residents think about it in colors.

      • EJ

        It’s not as possible in London as some people think. The deep tube lines all have their quirks that make many of them unique. E.g. the third rail is positioned differently on the central line, the signalling system on the victoria line is different from all the others, etc.

    • EJ

      One thing LA does is color code its buses by class of service – “rapid” buses are red and gray, local buses are orange IIRC. This works because they actually use two different fleets.

  8. fjod

    For London, this would cause some issues. It’s fine for the Northern and other deep tube lines, but a problem for the District/Circle/H+C, which all share the same trains. Would these be left uncoloured? And, if so, wouldn’t this confuse visitors who are expecting to see line-coloured trains? I don’t really see how you could paint the District/Circle/H+C trains in a neutral way, seen as how any colour you paint the trains will be associated with a particular line.

  9. Nicolas Centa

    “In Japan, trees turn red in the spring and not the fall“

    Cherry blossoms are pink, and trees famously turn red in the fall in Japan.

  10. yuuka

    You might like these then: (article in JP but the pictures should be enough).

    Though I realistically wonder how having different designs for each trainset would work on a very large fleet – the Northern Line has 106 trains, and here in Singapore our newest Downtown and Thomson lines should cap out at around 90-plus trains..

    • Alon Levy

      Both London and Singapore are so incredibly diverse there should be so, so many different things to depict.

      (Okay, granted, the PAP seems to think there’s no art in Singapore and would probably contract Western and maybe Chinese artists to do it all, but objectively speaking there are artists in Singapore capable of painting these designs on trains.)

      • yuuka

        My thinking was more on funding – even if they did get the money to commission a set of 20 to use (which is already a lot), the idea is of limited application if, for example, trainset numbers 1, 21, 41, 61, 81 and 101 on line A, and 11, 31, 51, 71 and 91 on line B have the same “theme”.

        It may be easier to just leave things as they are, since something like “I was at Edgware Road platform 3 at around 12.30” is usually enough for a knowledgeable operator to go off on. For what it’s worth, in Singapore (and other Soviet-era metros) they prefer to spend the money on art and architecture in the stations instead, as a “local landmark” and a way of easily identifying where you are.

  11. po8crg

    Doesn’t have to be paint – they can use vinyl covers (cheaper, but less durable; can be printed on directly rather than needing paint) if the designs are changing regularly.

    The big advantage is that the vinyls can be printed, where paint on the train will either need an artist to apply directly, or will need an expensive machine (basically a giant ink-jet printer). For a simple design (like most train liveries), then paint can be applied by hand or using a paint sprayer and stencils, but real art is too complex for that approach.

    Vinyls do not have to be full wraps that cover the windows – they can have cutouts or there can just be two pieces, one for the roof and above the window, the other below.

  12. EJ

    It’s not the same as painting trains, but the Mexico City Metro has a delightful system where there is a different, distinctive icon for each station that relates in some way to the local neighborhood. It originally was for a practical purpose, as the literacy rate when the Metro was built was much lower than it is now, but they’ve stuck with it because it’s now a distinctive part of their brand.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, station art is pretty common – Mexico City has the paint schemes, Stockholm has the natural caverns and various art installations, Paris has exhibits on platforms. What I don’t get is why this is never extended to the actual trains, beyond the occasional nostalgia train ride in New York.

    • Michael Whelan

      Another great example of this is Montreal, where each metro station has a unique architectural design. (Montreal is also a city with more than enough diversity and history to put a different artwork on every train.)

  13. Mike

    Weight is one issue. Through the 1970’s, 1980’s and 90’s London Transport was so strapped for cash they stripped all cars down to the aluminium skin to save weight. Before that most were red. I’m not totally in favour of this idea. It would all look a bit garish for my minimalist taste.

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