1976 – UK – “A New Hobby”

Confessions of a train spotter

So you are a train spotter then?

It is a question that many railway enthusiasts dread being asked.

They will often point out that that their serious and mature interest in railways has absolutely nothing in common with the childish pursuit of standing on the end of a station platform and writing train numbers in a note book. They will also usually deny that they were ever a train spotter.

That last part is probably a lie. If you are interested in railways and you grew up in the UK during the fifties, sixties or seventies the chances are you were a train spotter at some time in your teenage years.   Many famous people including Jules Holland, Michael Palin and Richard Branson have admitted to train spotting.   I was certainly a train spotter.

But what is train spotting?

One man could claim to have invented the hobby and his name was Ian Allan. The story goes that back in the 1940s he was working as a clerk for the Southern Railway and kept getting letters asking for lists of the numbers and names of the locomotives. Allan figured that he might make money from the requests, so he quit his job and set up a company to publish the lists and sell them as books. He called them ABC books.

For the train spotter the goal was, of course, to record the numbers of the locomotives you saw and the compare them with the lists in the book. Most people would then underline the locomotives they had seen in the book. The ultimate target was to see all the locomotives in the book.

Allan actively encouraged the hobby. He created a club, planned events and eventually organised special train trips to make sure people stayed interested and kept buying his books. The company he set up grew quickly and ended up publishing magazines, books on various topics and even owning hotels.

Ian Allan Tribute / John Turner / Creative Commons / 2.0

I was introduced to train spotting in 1976. In 1975 I had moved to the local grammar school and my circle of friends had changed. I had made friends with a couple of lads who were also interested in railways. One had already started train spotting and the other two of us soon joined in. We bought our Ian Allan ABC books and started to spend time on the end of Preston station.

A Class 25 Diesel Locomotive
Its number = 25 065
A list of Class 25 locomotives in the 1977 ABC book

At first it was all rather exciting; every locomotive was new to us and presented a chance to underline it in the book.   After several visits to Preston though it started to get just a little tedious. It dawned on us slowly that most of the locomotives that passed through Preston were the same ones week after week.

Still, it was great to be at the station and we would while away the hours talking to fellow spotters enthusiasts at the end of the platform.  If it was raining we would shelter in the station buffet and snack on British Rail’s gourmet sandwiches.

Buffet Food / Keijo Knutas/ Creative Commons 2.0

In the early 1970s British Rail were actively discouraging the naming of their diesel and electric locomotives. That was in marked contrast to the policy that had existed in the steam era. It was claimed (wrongly – as the policy was later reversed) that the general public no longer had any interest in the names of locomotives.

Years later I found an old ABC from 1958 at a jumble sale and I bought it out of curiosity. Its original owner had underlined the steam locomotives that he had seen and, of course, they all had names.

I reflected on how much more interesting it might have been for us if we had been waiting for the “Duchess of Sutherland” or “King Arthur”   rather than just nameless diesels or electrics like “25 025” and “87 024”.

1958 ABC

We eventually realised that although there were several hundred locomotives listed in the book we were never likely to see them pass through Preston.

It was a law of diminishing returns thing; the first visit to Preston had yielded us over 50 new numbers but the tenth visit yielded about 3 or 4.

Our interest eventually waned and then with another friend, we turned to perch fishing. We didn’t catch too many perch though so our attention quickly moved again from angling to photography.