Full Steam Ahead

9th October 2009

Heather Harris investigates the attractions of trainspotting…

I tried, I really tried… but the trouble is, I think I peaked with Thomas the Tank Engine.

As I stood there, sharpened pencil in one hand and empty notepad in the other, I realised that trainspotting is not as easy as it looks. Standing on the platform at Watford Junction station, I could see plenty of trains – but ask me to differentiate between a southbound Euston and a northbound Tring, and I become seriously derailed: the signals go down, the brakes go on, and my pencil (along with my enthusiasm) comes to a resounding halt.

I think the reason that I hit the buffers so early in my new found trainspotting career is that I didn’t actually understand what I was looking for… Despite an in-depth conversation about serial numbers with John Martin, the founder of the Rail Enthusiasts website (www.railenthusiasts.co.uk) I didn’t dare ask where they are – on the top, on the bottom or being waved out the window on a flag by the guardsman?

As readily ridiculed as morris dancing or Scientology, trainspotting is – surprisingly – still a thriving pastime. At any time, and at any given station around the UK, someone is likely to be on the look out for their favourite locomotive.

Famous advocates of the hobby include former Python and tv presenter Michael Palin, music mogul Pete Waterman, thriller icon Alfred Hitchcock and poet WH Auden. The number of rail lovers’ websites, which show pictures of trains, tracks and even points, is rising faster than the cost of a British Rail sandwich (sorry, a Virgin Trains Panini) and their forums are full to capacity with comments from over 100,000 enthusiastic UK spotters.

“Peterborough is one of the most popular spots with all the freight trains travelling up North. People will literally spend all night there… Clapham Junction is another favourite because it’s Britain’s busiest station,” explains Mr Martin, adding that, although the members of his Rail Enthusiasts’ group are still mainly men between the ages of 40 and 70, there are youngsters to be found at the edge of the platform, equipped with dictaphones and digital cameras. The notebook has been superseded.

“But then they discover more attractive pastimes,” he admits, alluding to the fact that relationships don’t exactly build up a full head of steam on a chilly station siding (unless it’s 1942 and your names are Bogart and Bergman).

Historically, the collection of locomotive numbers dates back to the glorious age of rail travel and the building of the first steam locomotive in 1804 by Richard Trevithick. In two hours it managed to haul 10 tons of iron, 70 men and five extra wagons along the nine miles between the ironworks at Pen-y-Darron and Merthyr Tydfil in Wales – with no delays for leaves on the line or the wrong sort of snow.

In those days it took many months for the original ‘iron horse’ spotters to fill one notepad, quill pen in hand, as the timetable was rather sparser than today’s ‘on the hour every hour’ services around the country.
“The main aim these days is for spotters to collect all the serial numbers of one particular type of rolling stock. This might be a particular class of locomotive, type of carriage or all the stock of a train company,” explains 58 year-old David Harrison, self confessed train spotter. “For example there’s 512 of the latest 66 class locomotive and people will travel all over the country to log a sighting of every single one”.

And once they’ve logged them they no longer retire to the privacy of their bedroom to record their findings in an A4 ring binder.

“We offer spotters like David, the chance to hold their own personal log on-line including the livery, operator, depot builder and owner,” says James Martin, adding that the Rail Enthusiasts website is updated every hour – more frequently than most train information services. It currently has details of 10,902 different locomotives and 3,277 photographs. They resemble one of those children’s ‘Spot The Difference’ competitions – but harder.

And despite opinions to the contrary, this practice is not one of those quintessential British pastimes. Transatlantic trainspotters have a shed-load of US train sites to peruse. In America they are called railfans, and the activity is referred to as trainfanning (not to be confused with the illegal world of freight train hopping – a growing sport unlikely to make the 2012 Olympics).

In Spain, the national rail road company requires a permit before any enthusiast can stand at the end of the platform, while down the track in Greece railway photography is strictly illegal, with cameras and notes seized by police.

The security issue problem has spread to the UK too. “Even in this country we’ve had over-officious officials who have questioned us under anti-terrorist laws when they see us at stations,” explains David. Just last year questions about this over-zealous policing were raised in the House of Commons by MPs whose constituencies covered popular trainspotting stations.

“The only thing we do have to be careful of is flash photography as this can be distracting. Most of us are just happy jotting down numbers,” says David, who like many of his fellow spotters began his interest as a small boy with a passion for railways (apparently those who still are only interested in the old steam trains are known as ‘Diseasals’ by the modern electric train loving fraternity).

He also dispels the myth that trainspotting is the pursuit of the obsessive loner. “It is sociable, because with all these new websites we can swap information and chat about our hobby on-line as well as meet up through all the various rail organisations”.

And who am I to argue? At a time when society seems to be going more off the rails every day, any activity which brings a smile to the face for the cost of an HB pencil must be a positive signal for the future.

Now pass me my anorak, I might just catch the 7.27…

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