Trainspotting closed on 1 March 2015. For details of our current exhibitions, take a look at our what’s on page.
We brought the adventure, mischief and drama of trainspotting to life in a fascinating season exploring a much-misunderstood hobby.
Our commission by acclaimed artist Andrew Cross sought to present the experience and method of trainspotting in a new way. Andrew’s film explored the anticipation of train watching across a number of international locations.
For over forty years, artist Andrew Cross has been watching and waiting, recording and filming. In Parallel Tracks, Andrew takes an alternative look at trainspotting. Drawing upon personal experience, Andrew’s work reflects his instinct to record both in visual and written form—as a trainspotter, music fan, photographer and artist.
A new film, Being There, explores the patience and suspense of train watching—the sense of anticipation is far from an empty experience. It is not just about trains. It is the adventure of journeying; the sights and sounds of a particular location. Whether in the Californian desert, the Swiss mountains or the rural English landscape, it’s about being in the moment.
Andrew’s photographs and film-based works explore experiences of place, time, and movement, drawing upon a number of interests including landscape, railways and music. His work has been exhibited widely and received critical attention. His first book of photographs Some Trains in America was published in 2002; notable film works include 3 hours from here (an English Journey) (2004) and The Solo (featuring the music of Carl Palmer) (2010). Andrew is a lecturer in photography at Southampton Solent University. Read more at his website.
Andrew Cross was appointed out of a shortlist of 120 artists, from the UK and overseas, to create a new contemporary interpretation of the theme of trainspotting. We caught up with him and asked him about creating his latest work.
Would you describe yourself as a trainspotter? Absolutely. I think we are all trainspotters of a kind. Most people are afraid to recognise it. I am one of those 70s schoolboys who used to loiter at the end of station platforms and explore the back streets of Britain's industrial towns, now grown-up (sort of...!) Wherever I am in the world, even looking out of aeroplane windows, the way I observe the world is influenced by those early years trainspotting.
Do you feel that people see trainspotting, or even liking trains, as a shameful secret? Like I’ve suggested, many people are trainspotters of one sort or another—if you listen to the way people talk about the Glastonbury line-up or, indeed, visiting art exhibitions, it's generally the ticking-off of a list. Yet for some reason trainspotting has remained a metaphor for something that is not only derided but actually unsettles the comfortable majority. In the tradition of English radicalism I see trainspotting as one of the last remaining stances against the normal you can take. At a posh dinner party you can confess to all manner of things and no one will turn a hair, but if you were to say you like trains you can see a palpable disquiet among your fellow guests who may not understand your motivation. Trainspotters demonstrate the ability of individuals to act freely in pursuit of their interests simply because they are not influenced by fashion or social expectation. I think many people are envious of that.
Do you have any personal trainspotting memories that stand out? There are almost too many to mention and many of my memories are often to do with atmosphere—station waiting rooms on dank winter days (did I only do my trainspotting during the winter?), the grime around engine sheds, industrial decline, egg sandwiches, the smell of diesel. Freezing to death at Water Orton near Birmingham in January 1972; seeing the Boots factory on my first ever visit to Nottingham also during 1972; passing through Newcastle very early one May morning in 1974 on an overnight excursion from Oxford to Aberdeen (Newcastle had just lost to Liverpool in the FA cup final); 1055 Western Advocate at the head of our train back to Oxford at Reading station on that November Saturday in 1971 and feeling very excited...! More recently? Alone in the Mojave desert watching a train heading towards me from a good 15 miles away...
What inspired you to become an artist? Difficult to say. Possibly to do with LP cover design and the work of someone like Roger Dean? Possibly something at the heart of my trainspotting? Despite the usual history offered, the 1970s was actually a very creative time when things felt possible and the motivation was the exploration of ideas and not celebrity.
What are you looking at for inspiration for this work? I've recently found some very old photographs I took in my trainspotting days which I had totally forgotten about. I am interested in how images like these, and those by others—including items from the amazing National Railway Museum archives—can become triggers for memory and a way of mapping places and moments from the past. Also the way that trainspotting is an inexact science, often full of idiosyncrasy and missed opportunities—personally, I have plenty of memories but very little in accurate records. In some respects, most of us weren't that good at it, but that wasn’t the point.
I am also drawing upon my experiences of train watching in the USA from over the past 20 years. This is all about how train watching becomes an exploration of landscape and time.
What other artists do you admire? Since art school I have always been drawn to abstract painting, particularly from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Peter Kinley, a British painter from that period who was my tutor, became a great influence. I like art that is quiet and intelligent. American photographers William Christenberry and James Welling have been influential, not least because James Welling introduced me to watching trains in America!
Otherwise, Neil Young. Great music to watch trains by and he confounds his critics and fans in equal measure.
What other things are you working on at the moment? Last summer I visited Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, with a British Somali architect friend to document the architecture. The experience was something very new and profound for me. That work is currently on exhibition. In recent years I have also been exploring, like trainspotting, other aspects of my past including the military and agricultural landscape of Salisbury Plain, where I grew up. That experience was very much about machines in the landscape. Also the landscape sites of 1970s rock festivals. Out of this interest I have developed some collaborative works with musicians from that period.
What do you like most about York? York is one of those lovely towns which is very walkable. People are friendly. Anywhere outside the M25 is generally a good place to be.
What’s your favourite collection item at the National Railway Museum and why? It would have to be the Western—a very distinctive hydraulic locomotive built in Swindon for the western region of British Railways which ran during the 1960s and 70s. In many respects it represents everything about my childhood in the rural heart of the western region.
However, the most significant item for me is the Design Guidelines Manual for the British Rail Corporate Plan of the 1960s and 70s. This design strategy produced the iconic double arrow symbol. Here is the map to a time when the desire for a unified national railway existed still. Beautiful.
As soon as I started trainspotting I was hooked. Most weekends and school holidays were spent trainspotting in London at great stations such as Paddington and King's Cross and furtive visits to engine sheds with names that would cause any trainspotter's heart to skip a beat. Nine Elms and Stewarts Lane, King's Cross, Old Oak Common and Willesden Junction, these were the premier A-listers. The lure of what might be in the sheds far outweighed the risks of entering them.
Some sheds were quite easy to get round while others were much more difficult. It was quite extraordinary the lengths we would go to get in. At Stewarts Lane I would get down on all fours and creep below the windows of the main entrance gatehouse unseen, followed by a quick sprint to the relative safety of the shed. At Nine Elms I would climb up a small factory wall, walk along the top and then heave myself onto the adjacent shed wall and carefully lower myself down. At King's Cross, notoriously difficult to access to without a permit, my route would take me past the main entrance on Goods Way, up some coal chutes in a nearby coal yard, over the Regents Canal, over some railway land alongside the Midland main line then down some steps which led to the approach road leading to the shed. I'd then hide amongst the lines of goods wagons before venturing out across the shed yard and into the shed. And that was the easy bit!
During one regular Sunday visit to Old Oak Common I noted down all the engines in the shed. I then spent some time clambering over all the engines on the scrap line, which left me with very dirty hands. Walking back through the shed and ignoring the importance of not being seen by shed staff, I rather brazenly entered a small office and asked if there was somewhere I could wash my hands. A man wearing a blue coat stood up and told me to follow him and took me to an outside tap nearby. It was then I noticed just how large his hands were, about one and a half inches thick and about as smooth as a wooden sleeper. With a handful of abrasive cleaning material used to clean grime off engines and a bar of soap, which looked like a brick, he took hold of my hands and proceeded to vigorously scrub them. The ordeal lasted some minutes at the end of which which my hands looked as though they had been rubbed raw. I suppose this was his way of reacting to what he saw as my impudence in entering the shed without permission. I did grin and bear it and several days passed before my hands got their normal colour back and the stinging stopped.
I have been interested in both model and real railways since a very young age. I remember going on a shunting engine at Warwick when I was four and received my first train set for Christmas later that year.
I often went trainspotting at the various stations in the Portsmouth area—particularly Fratton, Portsmouth and Southsea. The latter station was fine, but the porter at Fratton hated trainspotters and always chased us off the bridge if he saw us. I am afraid he got a fair amount of abuse in return.
When I was older I used to organise school trips once a year to London to see the London engine sheds. I would go to the station office to get shed passes and buy a group travel ticket. This gave me one free ticket—a perk of organising the trip. 15 to 20 boys would turn up at each shed and present our pass to the shedmaster. We were usually told to watch out for any moving engines, but otherwise there was no supervision and we were trusted to behave ourselves. No teacher accompanied our groups. We just went on our own. I remember I always organised too many sheds to visit in one day so it was always a mad rush to see as many engines as possible. Often we would not get back until 9.30pm—usually unbelievably grubby after climbing on to one or two engines!
In the dark passageway between the two station platforms was the WH Smiths where I bought my first Ian Allan ABC spotters guide. The book was hugely important but also unsettling. It listed the individual number of every engine that I saw on those early visits, thus confirming each loco's importance and hence the significance of me seeing it. Yet it quickly became clear that there were many locos detailed and illustrated in the book that would never be seen in my home town of Bury.
So the ABC came with a challenge to see more engines, and that meant moving on from Bury's platforms. Cambridge and Ipswich were obvious destinations. I accompanied my mother while she shopped in Cambridge and unintentionally revealed to her, by having to get close to the locos to read the numbers, that I needed glasses. At Ipswich, I remember the Saturday afternoons on the platform when I could hear the crowd from the nearby football stadium. Worse was to have gone to the match and instead hear the rousing whistles of the invisible Britannias off in the distance.
Looking back now, the clearest and happiest memories come from my earliest experiences. At Bury station, periods of relative tranquillity were broken only by cooing pigeons on the station roof and the man filling in time by tapping the wheels of idle coaches parked on the through lines. Anticipation grew as passengers and parcels arrived on the platform, hidden bells rang, and signal arms were raised. I recall baskets of racing pigeons and other small livestock on trolleys waiting to be loaded, and often a mysterious smell of fish.
The stars of the show, to be seen fleetingly at Bury, were the B17 class, in green livery and with names of stately homes, football clubs and East Anglian regiments. They were all memorable but none finer than the recalled sight of Brancepeth Castle wheeling past Bury's humble shed which could not claim such magnificence of its own. Other gems soon followed: John o' Gaunt, so new that it was not even in my ABC, was seen from the top deck of the Bury to Ipswich bus; British Monarch, a name outclassing Cambridge's Royal Sovereign, was seen at Paddington Station in 1951, while Queen Berengaria was copped in Somerset, our holiday destination.
Ten years after my first introduction to the railway and having moved on to what seemed like more important matters, by chance I encountered an old and tired friend, Raby Castle, loitering in Bury station. In its final days I hardly recognised it, or indeed my earlier self.
I was nine in 1959 when I was walking past the station in my home village of Barrow upon Soar and saw a train rush through pulled by a diesel engine. I was fascinated—I had only ever seen steam trains before and this was so new and exciting. I really wanted to see another one so I started to go down to the station to watch trains. It didn't take me long to realise the error of my ways and learn that it was the steam engines that were the really interesting ones, but I was by now hooked on trainspotting.
I bought my Ian Allan spotters guide and over the next few years, as well as spotting at Barrow, I would bike over to the Great Central at Quorn to see the evening fish train. I also travelled to Rugby, Nuneaton and Crewe to see 'Semis' and 'Priggies', and to Peterborough to see 'Streaks'.
The trainspotting bug has never really gone away. I spent part of my first honeymoon in Finsbury Park Diesel Depot, and my second husband and I are both Friends of the Great Central Railway. We have made many forays into Europe by rail, and have visited railway museums in both Europe and the USA.
All that because of a chance glimpse of a train...
My fourteenth visit to Crewe Station obviously meant the same locomotives were cropping up with some regularity. Our response to this was total disdain. We were not alone. When Crewe-based engines arrived at the station they could be met with a cacophony of jeering, wolf whistling or booing. We would refer to them as ‘crates’, ‘stinks’ or ‘relics’. This was quite the opposite to the reverential reception afforded, for example, to a Coronation Class engine, which might reasonably be expected at the head of the afternoon Glasgow to Birmingham express. This might be greeted with shrieks or yells of gratitude and appreciation, even waving, clapping and cheering. Quite what the train crews thought of this nonsense is anybody’s guess.
It was at Crewe that one of us recognised a Coronation Street actor, whose name I can't remember. He was waiting, not surprisingly under the circumstances, for the departure of the train to Manchester. We boarded the train and asked him for his autograph. He seemed less than pleased at being recognised. He told us to work hard at school and ‘don't go in for acting. Be scientists or something useful’. Feeling rather bemused, we hopped off before we were inadvertently whisked away for a fun journey to Manchester in his company.
At the end of the same month, the lads went to Preston for the day. The approach to the station by rail was a long, straight section and it comprised at least a four track main line. From the platform end this meant it offered excellent opportunities to test your eye sight and your recognition skills of the different classes of engines as they approached from a distance.
The shape of their smoke deflectors was a give away for Brits, Semis and Scots. Telling Jubilees and Black Fives apart from a distance was trickier. I seem to remember that the Jubilee smoke box door looked a little smaller, presumably because its boiler was a bit more tapered than the one on a Black Five.
If class recognition depended largely on familiarity and practice, quality of eye sight certainly came into it when it came to reading the digits. There was an element of competition to be the first to read the plate. It was very disappointing to me when it soon became obvious that my friend Ian could read the numbers and shout them out when I could still only see a blur.
I have never cheated when recording train numbers. I would only have been cheating myself. However, there were occasions when the overall feeling was that some one or other was telling porkies. One local spotter, for example, claimed to have seen Coronation Class No. 46248 City of Leeds in New Brighton station. Firstly, I don’t even know if that was possible from a loading gauge point of view. What I do know is that we did not believe him. If anyone knows differently nearly fifty years later it will certainly settle an old argument and I may yet have to eat humble pie.
Trainspotting found me without prior notice one lunchtime in 1961 when I was thirteen. I was playing football in the park when the game was abruptly adjourned as a Brit, I was told, was due to cross the bridge over the Birmingham Canal. I had no idea what the fuss was about, but, the match having been abandoned, I went along anyway. The Brit turned out to be William Shakespeare, the first train to be underlined when I subsequently bought, as all trainspotters did, the Ian Allan 'combined’ book of engines. I was sufficiently impressed to take up trainspotting as a hobby, and happy that my peers, all sons of tradesmen and factory workers, deemed it an equally acceptable pursuit. I would not have wanted to trade social acceptance for trainspotting, however much I enjoyed it.
Trainspotting for two or three years became almost as important to me as football. In fact, I was able to combine both interests. Travelling to Wolves away matches by train meant that I could turn to hitherto redundant sections of my Ian Allan. One trip to Ipswich enabled me to turn to page 103 and begin to underline engines that would never have turned up on my doorstep.
School holidays, Summer weekends and Saturdays when the school had no football fixtures were spent at our favoured spot between Wolverhampton High and Low Level stations, where both GWR and LMS engines could be seen. The bridge outside Stafford was also a desirable spot, not only for the Coronation class engines that went down the Trent Valley line but also, for the klondikes (flat, rounded chips) from the fish and chip shop a few yards down the road.
Looking now at my Ian Allan 'combined' edition from 1961, I realise that I was fortunate to have caught the last days of steam. Even in 1961 Ian Allan had 141 pages devoted to steam locomotives, while diesel listings occupied a further 92 pages. They were never more than pretenders to the railway inheritance, and as their numbers grew, my interest waned.
In the summer of 1965 my friends and I took our places for the last time on the stone wall above the railyard. It was a meeting place where we would always congregate. From here we could scan the world under a vast expansive sky above, looking out at the landscape of the city of Dundee which our village was joined to by the long thin Tay rail viaduct that stretched nearly two miles over the salt water expanse.
Perched on a cutting of rock above the local goods yard, overlooking the main line by the Tay railway bridge, we would watch from our wall the passing of the steam railway era of the early sixties as the Edinburgh to Dundee express trains whooshed past. Careworn freight locomotives would draw up in the passing loop below and were left to simmer whilst the wheels of their wagons were checked. Isolated good wagons would be loaded or unloaded in desultory fashion or coal was tipped into the sleepered-bays of the local collier. A wheel tapper would be dispatched to check the rake of wagons and the foreman would wander off in the direction of the signal box at the yard end beyond the water tower.
To our left, looking south, triggered by the lifting of the up signal, we would watch out expectantly for the glimpse of an express rounding the curve out of the cutting approaching at speed. Once, an express bound for Dundee pulled up directly below us at a signal check for the bridge. Pulled by a top-link engine, its name Spearmint was spelled out on the curved nameplate on the central wheelsplasher.
Later there would be the fast goods trains, bound for London's fish market. There was always squealing of the wheels on the rails on the tight curve. The locomotive, picking up speed off the bend, progressed relentlessly. The clatter of the endless closed wagons punched the air until the train past. Our heads turned and we followed its line as it diminished in the twilight, the blinking of the red light of the guard's van disappearing from view round the bend. It signalled the last rush of the day, and we would leave the wall to head off to play football, cycle up the bramble road, or skim stones off the pier at the boating club. Sometimes the branch signal would lift as we were turning away and a light engine would drift in to Wormit station. If it paused at the signal box, there was just a chance we could ask the driver to get up into the cab. If we were lucky he would give us a footplate ride the length of the platform.
We knew the times of the major trains by heart. They had names—Elizabethan, Aberdonian, Tyne Tees Pullman, Flying Scotsman—and they were all pulled by streaks.
The adrenalin would start flowing, the tension would mount, the excitement intensify. Would it be one you hadn't seen before? Would it be a new sighting? Or, in trainspotting jargon, would it be a 'cop'? Because that’s why you were there - to cop all the streaks.
In fact getting most of them was not difficult. There were 34 streaks and they all, with but few exceptions, worked the main line between King's Cross and Edinburgh. So if you spent enough time in the station you would soon see them all. Those exceptions worked north of Edinburgh and Glasgow up to Aberdeen and were scarcely seen in York. And the rarest of all was number 24—Kingfisher.
No one had seen Kingfisher. Even the older lads who'd been at it for years didn't have Kingfisher. South Africa and India—yes. But not Kingfisher.
So imagine my excitement when, on arriving at school one morning, Charlie and John came charging up - "Kingfisher's in"
"Yeah—it came in yesterday. It's just sitting there in the yards"
"You've seen it?!"
"Yeah—we went last night"
"You didn't tell me!"
"Well you weren't around to tell"
"You sure?"—was this some kind of joke?
"No—honest—we copped it last night"
This was desperate. A whole day at school before I could go and see it.
"When's it going out?"
"Dunno—might be there a few days"—or it might not, it might be out today.
And so it was, after an interminable day in school, I found myself galloping off, past the sheds to the yards beyond, where, with any luck, my quarry lay.
No streak. I looked around desperately—but no streak. I clambered over the fence, walked to the shed doors and peered in. There were no streaks around the turntable.
"Oi you!" some workman shouted "Ger out of it!". I legged it. It wasn't worth getting caught on railway property.
I'd had it—it must have gone out. And it might be months before it's back again. Rats, rats, rats.
"Did you get it?" I was asked the next day.
"Yep" I said as casually as I could.
"I did—it was just there where you said"
"Well you're lying—it went out yesterday lunch-time"
"It can't have done—I saw it"
"It did—Wreggie's dad's a driver—an' 'e said it went out at lunch-time"
"Well that's odd 'cos I saw it" I insisted, rather unconvincingly.
Well lying is one thing but dishonesty is another. I never did underline it in my Ian Allan spotter's book. That would be sacrilege.
On the 3 September 1967, one of the many 'scrap' trains was moving redundant steam locomotives from Salisbury Shed to South Wales, via Gloucester. These trains were not allowed through the Severn Tunnel due to the possibility of a hotbox failure whilst inside the tunnel.
This particular train consisted of 4 locomotives. Whilst heading northwards towards Standish Junction, it was discovered that one of the locos was running hot. The train was brought to a standstill at Coaley Junction, and sure enough 34002 Salisbury was found to have an overheated nearside centre driving wheel axle. This was a regular occurrence whilst moving these dead steam locos to the breaker's yard. For this reason the trains had strict speed restrictions.
It was decided to detach Salisbury and leave it on the old Dursley Branch at Coaley Junction. The other 3 locos continued on their way to Cashmores, Newport. Salisbury aroused great interest in the area from railway enthusiasts and the general public until its removal to Gloucester some two weeks later.
Upon arrival at Gloucester the loco was stored in a siding at the side of the main running shed, very close to the wheel drop building. Once again the very large community of railway enthusiasts who congregated at Tramway Junction crossing would visit the shed to see this strange streamlined locomotive. Back then, very few Southern Region locomotives made it to Gloucester.
The shed staff were clearly enjoying having a celebrity loco in their shed, and tolerated the never ending 'bunking' by spotters. Probably they turned a blind eye because the loco was well away from the running lines of the shed. Quickly one or two enthusiasts started cleaning the cabside to reveal the number. This led to the tender being cleaned with the shed foreman providing the rags and cotton waste.
The day before it was due to leave Gloucester shed we thought that the now gleaming loco should receive a final touch. Tins of paint were purchased and the name, crest and eventually the scroll were painted directly onto the streamlined casing. Also added was a smokebox number and shed code as well as other embellishments we had seen on locos in the railway press.
The day came, 24 September 1967, when we knew we would lose our 'centre of attention'. A class 47 diesel (or Brush Type 4, as they were originally labelled) arrived with three other locos in tow. They were stopped in the middle road at Gloucester Central Station, and the diesel was detached, ran back to the shed and dragged Salisbury out of the shed yard. There was just enough time for us to paint the West Country Class scroll below the name crest.
There were many sad faces when it left the shed, enthusiasts as well as shed personnel. In no time at all she was on her way to Cashmores scrapyard where, within two weeks was nowhere to be seen.
Little did we know it at the time that we would see many more scrap trains, but none would be as close to our hearts as Salisbury. At least we made certain that just this one went on her final trip with some dignity restored.
We would spend the days watching trains pass in every direction. When we weren't, we would get up to mischief. Putting old pennies or half-pennies on the line was a favourite as the train would flatten them. Scrumping in the local orchards was another.
By the age of 12 we were becoming more and more adventurous. We were allowed by our parents to take train journeys further afield and while there are many very interesting and exciting adventures that could be relayed this is possibly the best of the many.
Steam was in decline and increasingly the passenger trains were being pulled by diesel or diesel electric locomotives. Steam engines were disappearing rapidly and were increasingly only used for freight trains. The decline resulted in the scrapping of hundreds of steam locomotives. It was no secret that many ended up at Barry Island at Woodhams’ scrapyard. What better place to go and take the numbers of locomotives that would soon be gone forever? We left Yeovil early on a Saturday, by train of course, to Bristol Temple Meads. We then had an hour at Barrow Road shed—which we bunked in of course as we had no permits. We tried to get into Bath Road shed as well but that was much harder and we failed. Then we went back to Temple Meads for a train to Cardiff via the Severn Tunnel—an experience in itself.
When we got to Barry Island we had a ball. Almost all of the engines were without their number-plates so we looked for the chalked-on numbers that had been put on to identify them. We climbed on those of interest so that we could say that we had 'cabbed them'. I also removed a tap and valve gauge from a locomotive as a souvenir. We spent hours taking numbers and generally enjoying the day. I suspect (although my memory is not clear on this) that there was a sadness that these great locos were for the most part going to be cut up and turned into steel for bridges, cars, buildings or worse diesel engines.
The friendly shed foreman welcomed our large group, a motor coach full of impatient spotters. Being a Sunday morning, there was no disappointment at the quantity of locos numbers to record.
After our visit, we all piled back into our coach very happy. I felt it was time for my favourite snack, the infamous Lyons individual fruit pie. A few mouthfuls later I wound the coach window down and launched my empty fruit pie box into orbit, boomerang style, out the open window. After a quick glance towards the coach rear window, shock horror came across me as I saw my pie box score a direct hit on the helmet of a cycling police constable. The constable began swerving from side to side while desperately trying to grab his whistle from his breast pocket.
My last view, as we sped away, with a broad smile breaking out, was of the constable, notebook and pencil in hand, no doubt recording the coach number. So I wasn't the only one that Sunday taking numbers.
Another Sunday saw us visit Langwith Junction shed. It was the only shed that day which we had no permit to visit. The leader of our group told us that we needed to creep past the shed foreman’s office by stooping below his view.
All 30 of us made it into the tiny shed. All the numbers pencilled in our notebooks, and ready to go, before half a dozen footplate staff waving shovels emerged from the smoky gloom. The chase was on. ‘Head for the coach’, was the call in the confusion.
I headed towards the way out, only to find our coach speeding away, lads in chase. Half a mile later I climbed aboard. Gradually one by one we all made it back, the air full of foul verse against our leader for abandoning us to the peril of the footplate mob.
I occasionally accompanied my brother Dennis on his trainspotting pursuits. When I went to Queen Anne Grammar School in the 1970s my friend Helen and I were excited to find that the main London line was at the bottom of the school's hockey pitch.
Every lunchtime we would run down to the end of the pitch and have our packed lunch whilst waiting for the trains to go past. We were particularly thrilled when we spotted a Deltic. They were so much more interesting as there were only a few of them and they had names rather than just numbers. A favourite was St Paddy. Sometimes in summer we would be in class with the windows open and we could hear the distinctive sound of the Deltic in the distance and Helen and I would give each other a knowing look.
One day as we were sitting behind a line-side advertising hoarding, we were accosted by a uniformed policeman who told us we were not to sit there. He told us that it was dangerous and we were technically trespassing on the railway. I think I was six or seven years of age at the time and this was our first encounter with the police.
Needless to say we never sat there again but instead transferred our attention to the platforms of the station. This change of venue allowed us to watch the main line passenger trains in addition to the freight traffic and any light engine movements.
The entrance to the station was off through a small booking office which had a large rack of wilting and dusty excursion leaflets. Wooden stairs gave access to the up and down platforms. The footbridge was glazed but the windows were never cleaned and the only way to see over the tracks was through the occasional missing pane. Our usual position was on the down side where we could sit on platform trolleys under the footbridge or if it was cold, in the porter's office, where there was always a roaring fire.
There had to come a time when we ventured further afield. Unbeknown to my mother we purchased return tickets, the fare being, as I recall three pence (which was cheaper than tuppence each way on the bus). We spent most of our time on City North and, among many other trains, saw the Thames–Clyde express come in. I was much disconcerted to note that on the footplate was my next-door neighbour, Mr Lucas, as he was very likely to mention to my mother that he had seen me that day. Inevitably, he did which lead to another telling off.
One day, as I was standing at one of my regular spots, I noted the approach of a light engine. The fireman was gesticulating at me to change some hand points, which I duly did with some difficulty. As the loco pulled alongside, the crew indicated that I should get aboard. We went round the angles and finally parked up alongside the north side of the shed under the water tank. The crew then departed and asked me to ‘look after’ the loco for them. After a short while I realised they were having me on and I beat a hasty retreat before the shed foreman put in an appearance.
The inspiration for my gang’s name, The Red Hand Gang, was obvious. Whenever I returned home after a days climbing all over the ranks of condemned locomotives, my palms were always covered in rust.
Any visit to Barry scrap-yard meant trying to get along the rows of engines without ever touching the ground. Why I can't remember, unless this qualified as cabbing everything in the yard. Rusting handrails, warmed by the sun, allowed you to swing along the sides of engines for hours, stopping only for lunch and some sausage sandwiches, covered with red fingerprints. This ensured our age group never had any iron deficiencies.
Bunking sheds came with varied success. Aston shed was notorious for getting caught and being ejected from. Even ducking down under the booking-in window and making a dash for the lines of Brits and Scots usually ended in tears. That was until my Mum offered to take me there one Saturday when she persuaded the shed master to let me have a guided tour. I was famous at school and everyone wanted a Mum like mine.
My best mate at school and partner in crime was Smithy, who never left home without his Dad’s adjustable spanner and an endless supply of Rolos. Our first joint attempt to acquire a steam memento ended with one shed plate bolt and the adjustable spanner being jettisoned into the canal in case we were searched later. A later raid had him so determined to get a shed plate that he was literally hanging onto the boiler handles as the engine set off for work in the direction of Crewe. I just legged it and expected never to see him again.
Having honed our bunking skills on Tyseley, Stafford Road, Oxley and Saltley sheds, we were ready for Crewe Works. We turned up there without a permit, only to be swiftly turned away. A quick dodge down the side of someone’s house, over their garden fence and we were soon running along the side of the track heading for the works, hoping to tag onto the end of the official group of bona-fide visitors. Instead, we were marched back to the main office and the police were called, names and addresses were taken and we were escorted back to Crewe station and put on the next train back to Birmingham having promised never to return. We did of course, but always with permits.
We had the usual trainspotting adventures in the UK in the 1980s before moving on to Europe in the 1990s. One memorable moment was when five of us got arrested by Italian Railway Police for photographing locos. We were taken to the police station in the main station. Arm waving started and the Sergeant was called for.
It looked like a long job so I took off my jacket and the Sergeant immediately noticed my Liverpool football top. The atmosphere changed and we were immediately un-arrested. We were then escorted back to the end of the platform and invited to take many more pictures. As they say in Liverpool, You Never Trainspot Alone!
Trainspotting was at its most popular in the 1940s and 1950s, but it has a surprisingly long history—browse our timeline below.
Shortly after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, young actress Fanny Kemble rides on the footplate of Rocket.
This is the first recorded instance of a member of the public requesting and getting a footplate ride. She wrote ‘when I closed my eyes, the sensation of flying was quite delightful, and strange beyond description’.
A diary, believed to belong to Colonel James Pennyman of Ormesby Hall, shows detailed records of trains on the Great North of England Railway from 1841 to 1847. There are a number of other references and railway observations in diaries and letters around this time.
The first person to keep records of locomotive numbers and names in a separate journal was 14-year-old Fanny Johnson in 1861. Her lists are mentioned in a Great Western Railway (GWR) magazine article published in 1935. It would be interesting to know if this early spotter’s notebook survived the Second World War—get in touch if you know!
Several lists of locomotive numbers had been printed by 1899. The first major compendium appears to be an alphabetical list of named engines by S Cotterell and GH Wilkinson for the London & North Western Railway (LNWR). We would like to find out who the authors were and whether anyone has an annotated copy of this book. Please get in touch if you can help.
Locomotives of the Southern Railway was published in 1934. This is one of a number of publications by the Big Four railway companies aimed at satisfying the needs of ‘locoists’ and those collecting ‘namers’ (named locomotives).
Ian Allan published the first ABC spotter book and this led to a boom in trainspotting. The Ian Allan Locospotters’ Club was formed in 1948 to help control the craze. A whole generation of enthusiasts got to know the major railway centres and junctions of Britain through their hobby. These enthusiasts later formed the bedrock of support for heritage railways in Britain.
By the 1950s, trainspotting was extremely popular and many unaccompanied youngsters could be found at stations. Some authority figures wanted to ban the hobby as they were concerned about the potential for juvenile delinquency. When Willesden Junction closed to spotters in June 1954, it was suggested that this potentially affected up to half a million spotters.
The end of steam pulled trains on British Railways led some spotters to give up the hobby. It also kick-started the railway preservation movement, with ex-spotters getting involved with restoring and running trains on these new lines over the next decades.
For those who stuck with the hobby into the diesel era, the Motive Power Pocket Book, published by Platform 5 in 1978 became the must-have publication. The author was an early adopter of computer technology, which kept the lists up to date. Platform 5 became a publishing empire that eventually produced spotters’ guides to railways around the world.
Trainspotters today are able to use a range of websites to find out what’s happening across the network. Often, spotters will record their sightings by taking a photograph as well as noting down the details of what they have seen. They share information via chatrooms and social media.
Love Me Tender
We commissioned world-class poet Ian McMillan to write us a poem capturing the essence of trainspotting.
It’s a late-night moment on a freezing station,
A notebook with one page to fill.
It’s a morning that trembles with anticipation
Of the signal, the whistle, the thrill
Of the number you thought that you’d never get
After days of frustration and weeks of regret.
It’s parents and kids on an endless quest,
A Sunday weighed down by the rain;
It's the glow of a light rushing down from the West
And that beautiful, beautiful train
You now get the chance to tick off in the book
Through pure dedication and skill and good luck.
It’s a map of the system laid out like a dream
A story of numbers, and tales
Of epic encounters on days wreathed with steam
When the bright sun mined gold from the rails
And you ate your sandwiches on Platform 3
And the big book of engines was light on your knee.
It’s a life filled with moments that ring like a bell,
With elation, the thrill of the chase;
It’s a smile from your dad that says ‘Yes, all is well’
As he matches the grin on your face.
This is a hobby that never will pall.
Tomorrow’s a spotting day. Well, aren’t they all?
—Ian McMillan 2014