How did the T lines get their colors?

The MBTA's iconic hues have stood the test of time, even through budget shortfalls, service disruptions, and the occasional Orange Line fire.

A red MBTA train pictured in Cambridge in 1970. Edmund L. Mitchell Collection, Arts Department, Boston Public Library

In the mid-1960s, designers at Cambridge Seven Associates were tasked with giving the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority a makeover, ushering in a new era of public transit in the commonwealth.

The colors they chose — iconic shades of red, orange, green, and blue — have persisted throughout tumultuous decades of budget shortfalls, service disruptions, and even the occasional Orange Line fire.

Before the MBTA, many of Boston’s trains were painted an olive-brown color thought to conceal dirt, or the blue, white, and gold of the Massachusetts state flag, according to The Boston Globe. By contrast, the new color-coded system came with a contemporary focus.


“From a design perspective, [the MBTA rebrand] really got the public used to abstraction, meaning, ‘I’m going to go ride this thing that’s red,’” said Steven Beaucher, author of the newly republished “Boston in Transit,” which chronicles nearly 400 years of transit history.


Calling the rapid transit lines by their colors removed some emphasis on what kind of vehicle you were riding or where it was heading, he explained in a recent interview. 

“And that was really hot in the 50s and 60s; it’s mid-century modernism,” said Beaucher, a trained architect who now runs the Cambridge-based antique map business WardMaps and the T’s official gift shop, MBTAgifts

“The idea was that it would become more comprehensible to more people,” he added. 

Where did the T get its colors?

According to official MBTA lore, consultants chose red, orange, green, and blue because the colors could easily be distinguished from one another.

Per the MBTA, the Red Line takes its color from the Harvard Crimson at the line’s former terminus, the Blue Line from the Boston Harbor under which it runs, and the Green Line from the Emerald Necklace and the leafy suburbs along its tracks. 

When it comes to the Orange Line, however, stories vary. 


The MBTA has offered two different versions: That the Orange Line branding was random, and that it was derived from the trains’ route under Washington Street, which was once named Orange Street. The Boston Globe also reported in 2012 that CambridgeSeven chose orange after a yellow color option didn’t test well

But in a 2018 interview with Bloomberg CityLab, CambridgeSeven co-founder Peter Chermayeff — who led the charge on the MBTA rebrand — said the team chose orange “for no particular reason beyond color balance.”

(Chermayeff also backed up the MBTA’s story on the reasoning behind the Red, Blue, and Green Line choices.) 

As for the MBTA’s other rapid transit and rail lines? 

“By the time they got to the Silver Line in the 90s, they really were out of the primary colors,” Beaucher said. “And thank God we didn’t do what Chicago did; the CTA, they have a brown line.”

The MBTA went with silver because it was distinct enough from existing colors, and “the T was extremely proud of the Silver Line when they came out with that, so silver kind of went with the new and the shiny,” he said. 


An MBTA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the choice of purple for the commuter rail, which adopted the hue in 1974. 

But Beaucher has a theory.

“I mean, [purple] just has a long history of being sort of the royal color and a royal train or a royal coach or carriage through the centuries,” he said. “When you’re picking colors for transit, you always have that in the back of your mind. So I’m going with that one.”

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