You’ve seen them standing on the ends of platforms with a notepad, sometimes a camera or binoculars, and a vacuum flask. While it used to be much more popular, the hobby these small gaggles of mainly men enjoy has since acquired a negative cliche.
But we wanted to know what leads trainspotters to stand outside for hours, what the hell are they collecting, and what do they think of that stereotype?
Alan Greenfield, 70, from Plymouth, is spending a week in London, visiting all the major termini.
“I spend all day standing on platforms, until evening rush hour is over. It’s hard to describe why I do it — I suppose it’s a collectors’ thing — you get a sense of achievement when you’ve seen every type of engine or unit.
“My wife thinks I’m crazy. She goes abroad for her holidays, but I get bored just sitting around a pool so I come to railway places.
“I’ve been trainspotting since I was 13. I lived in Lancashire and everything we did was on a train— going to Blackpool and Morecambe, all the mill towns, which is how I think I got interested… I loved the smell, because back then it was all steam trains.
How do you feel about the stereotypical view of a ‘trainspotter’?
“It makes me mad. It’s a really unfair reputation we have – we’re not harming anybody.
"A lot of people think it’s stupid, and maybe it is, but no more stupid than collecting butterflies or plane spotting, or any other hobby - and so long as we’re not hurting anyone, it shouldn’t matter.
“A lot of us help the passengers with train information, or with their bags because there’s not as many station staff around as there used to be. People ask me about train times and platforms because they know I’m a trainspotter and I’ll have the knowledge.”
What's your best train spotting moment?
“I’ve seen the Mallard and the Flying Scotsman. But to be honest, I’m a bit fed up of those now. Locomotives like the Flying Scotsman have only been preserved because they’ve got a certain celebrity about them — there were plenty of others that were just as good, but they’ve been scrapped.”
How has the hobby changed since you started?
In my era of the '50s and '60s, there were thousands of boys that took up trainspotting, but now you don’t see so many young people — people tend to be around my age.”
Mike Denne, 67, from London, goes trainspotting once a week.
“On and off I’ve been doing this for 56 years, ever since my grandfather took me to watch trains in Liverpool. Initially it was steam engines that first got me interested, then it just carried on. Sometimes I’m more into it than others, but I’ve never entirely stopped."
Mike collects the numbers on freight wagons, admitting he’s already seen pretty much every locomotive; and it suddenly becomes apparent that there are many different types of ‘trainspotting’. Some people collect the numbers on freight wagons, others passenger carriages, others only locomotives. Some people collect everything.
For the uninitiated, the hobby entails writing down whatever numbers you’ve decided to collect (you’ll see them on the side of the carriages or wagons), then referring back to catalogues of all the numbers. Once you’ve seen it you cross off, underline or however you choose to mark it as ‘done’.
Why do you do it?
“It’s cheap,” laughs Mike, adding, “but this isn’t all it’s about…” he cuts off and darts towards the edge of the platform as a freight train passes. As he neatly writes down the numbers of the wagons as they clank past, we find ourselves instinctively looking at them too, wondering what the fascination is. The experience is hypnotic: your eyes search out the string of white figures on black plates chugging by like batches of coded messages.
Spotting some sequential six-digit numbers on coupled wagons we just begin to wonder if that’s something special we could remark on (are we good at this?), when he’s back: “I just really like everything about railways – I’m interested in the history, the engineering, I like to travel on them… I can’t really explain it any deeper than that.”
Harry Gibson, 69, is from Blythe, Northumberland
“I was into trains from the age of 10. But I’ve only just taken this up again in the last four years, after I retired. I only take the numbers of the trains, but other guys here get the wagons on the containers.
“When I first started there was loads of school kids into it – there were so many of us we weren’t allowed in Newcastle station so we used to go an old yard nearby where we could see them all from the wall.
“I’ve seen all the trains in the north east so now I come further afield — I got here yesterday and I’m going home tonight. It only cost me £13.50 each way.
"The last time I was in London I saw 510 trains, most of them at Clapham Junction.”
How does the stereotype of a trainspotter make you feel?
“When I first got back into it I was embarrassed and I used to hide my notebook, but now I take no notice what people think. It keeps me out of trouble and in plenty of fresh air.”
“You see all sorts on platforms: some guys who don’t look like they’ve washed in a long time, other real anoraks. Some trainspotters push in front of passengers in order to get a photo of a train. So I can see how they stereotype persists. But there’s no need to be like that — be polite and have a wash!”
Stephanie Dearden, 61, from London, is chair of Wimbledon Model Railway Club.
She's also administrator of multiple Facebook pages dedicated to railways, both model and full-sized, and has an extraordinary collection of model locomotives and trucks.
“Don’t call me a trainspotter,” she gently chides. “I’m a ferroequinologist."
Stephanie grins. “Ferrum is Latin for iron, equus is Latin for horse and an ologist is someone who knows a lot about something.”
The humorous sobriquet is apt. Over the next 20 minutes she delivers a crash course in being a rail fan, peppered with detailed explanations about train history and lashings of trivia (“Did you know the 321 class is nicknamed a Dusty Bin because it looks like the cartoon character from TV?”).
“I stopped collecting train numbers 30 years ago. Couldn’t see the point in it,” she says. “I got all the engines and then all the units and then I started collecting carriages and wagons, and I thought: ‘this could never end’. Instead, I started taking pictures and video.”
How did you get into this?
“When I was four my grandfather bought me a Little Nellie four-wheel model engine and wagons, and I was hooked.
“My kids are into trains too, fortunately enough — but not as much as I am. Once you get that love of railways, it never leaves you. I spent 30 years in transport and logistics but every time I was driving I was looking at the railway line. I love the engineering of it all. We look for the rarer trains now because all the new ones are plastic and look the same.”
Suddenly, there’s a buzz of excitement among the handful of people on the end of Stratford's platform 10. A 50-year-old Class 37 locomotive (see photo) is about the go past. As it awaits the signal to move on, Stephanie explains how the Stratford traction maintenance depot — just about where Westfield now stands — was one of the most important depots in London. In celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee the team turned out two Class 47s with silver roofs, in defiance of strict British Rail rules — but they proved so popular, others followed suit.
Everyone with a camera around us is taking photos. As it chuffs past, the joy on people’s faces is infectious. Are we being bitten by the railways bug?
“That’s the sort of thing I really look out for,” beams Stephanie. “My followers in Japan love this sort of thing.”
Turns out Stephanie has almost 5,000 friends on Facebook. On her personal account. So much for the stereotype trainspotter.
Every Wednesday, Clive Cranshawe, 53, and Mike Blaydon head out trainspotting.
Mike’s recently retired and Clive’s doesn’t work on Wednesdays. Once a month they get out of Warrington and Manchester, and get on the train somewhere further afield.
Clive: “When I was growing up there was a freight train line at the end of our garden. So when I was nine and looking for something to do I just started noting down the trains and where they were going.
“I collect engines and multiple units [self-propelled units such as the Overground trains]. Today we’ll spend about six or seven hours between two stations.”
“Since I started, the hobby has changed hugely. The internet means we can look up trains in real time, but we can also know when a specific train is going to be somewhere, so we can make a trip to see it. In the past you’d just turn up at a station and have no idea what to expect.”
Mike: “I’ve been doing this since 1960 — it used to be more popular back then, probably because it was steam engines. I think most people feel there’s still something romantic about them.
“Now the younger people tend to take photographs or video of trains rather than collect numbers in a notepad.”
What do you get out of this hobby?
Mike: “I’m a collector. If I start collecting something I have to go on and on until I’ve got everything. I’m also a plane spotter, I collect stamps, coins, model planes, model locomotives…”
Clive: “I’m not as extensive as that. I get to a point where I’ve seen so many units that it’s hard to find anything new so I move onto something else.
“This is just part of what we do. I love travelling by train, and I’m particularly fascinated by the logistics of the whole system. For example, last time we came, my train from Manchester Piccadilly to home was cancelled due to a broken down train. There was a 20-minute delay and I could see how they moved trains around the reduce that delay until the service was back to normal. I think that’s incredible.”
Mike: “This isn’t just about collecting numbers. I’ve been interested in railways for nearly 60 years and over that time I’ve amassed a huge amount of knowledge of everything from history to the engineering to the working of signalling.
“For people who aren’t interested in railways, this is the only visible part of our hobby. But there’s so much more to it than just collecting numbers.”