Forget the anoraks, the Thermos flasks and meticulously kept notepads, Steve McClarence goes behind the scenes at the National Railway Museum as it tries to restore the reputation of the humble trainspotter. Main picture by James Hardisty.
Lineside memories at the ready, Andrew Cross comes clean about trainspotting. “You can go to a posh dinner party and say you’re a drug-addled psychopath and people say: ‘How terribly, terribly interesting’,” he says. “But if you say you’re a trainspotter, they can’t get out of the room fast enough.”
Andrew, artist and self-confessed “failed trainspotter”, is one of the main contributors to the Trainspotting season which opens next Friday at York’s National Railway Museum. Through exhibitions, poetry, trails and screeds of hurriedly scribbled train numbers, it will explore what it describes as a “much-misunderstood hobby”.
So, before we start, let’s try to understand it a bit better by getting a train (sorry, didn’t make a note of the number) from York to Doncaster station, one of the prime British habitats of the Easily Spotted Trainspotter (it’s an important junction and a lot of freight trains pass through).
Four dozen men – middle-aged and late-middle-aged – cluster at the far ends of platforms three and four They carry notebooks, cameras, binoculars and hand-held tape recorders into which they whisper numbers as trains pass.
Their rucksacks and shoulder bags often hold packed lunches and Thermos flasks to sustain them through long hours spent patiently waiting, absorbed, alert, full of anticipation, like anglers fishing for trains. Loco 158787 pulls in to Platform 3B. The books come out; the heads tilt down when they write, as though bowing in respect; the numbers are recorded; and another fleeting detail of time and motion is captured for posterity.
Sitting on a bench on platform four – between the buffet and the waiting room – are three regular spotters, here two or three times a week. They’re affable men, and very dedicated. “I’ve seen every passenger loco and taken photos of most of them – thousands and thousands,” says Alan Keens, from Rotherham. “I’m going up to Dundee on Saturday for the day. I’ll stop for about three hours on the station and then come back.” Rotherham to Dundee by train takes five-and-a-half hours each way.
Next to him on the bench, Steve Davis, from Wakefield, adds that he recently spent a day in Crewe. “Never moved off the station,” he says, eyes darting up and down the line (“43467, HST over there”). “Some people spend all day here – here at 7am, stay till 7 at night.”
They know spotters so dedicated that they try to linger all night on Carlisle station for a glimpse of the Caledonian Sleeper. “I’ve got a friend coming up from Hereford, staying in Doncaster for three days and just coming to the station,” says Steve. “Even when he’s having a holiday with his wife – they’ve got a caravan – he has a day at the station wherever he is.” Does his wife join him on the platform? “No.”
That’s what you might expect. One of the main preconceptions about spotters is that they’re all men. Not so, researchers for the National Railway Museum season have found. Women spot trains too. But not as many as men.
Do people have patronising preconceptions of them? “Well, I suppose trainspotters have the reputation of being a bit geeky,” says Malcolm Whitehead from Rotherham. “I suppose in today’s culture it’s a bit outdated. Young’uns don’t want to do it.”
“I prefer to be called a rail enthusiast,” says Alan, and the three of them hurry to the platform edge as a coal train trundles past. Class 66 freight. They write down its number – 66750 – and Alan snaps it with his camera and shows me the picture and they reminisce about great days out.
“We had a good day at Tamworth,” says Steve. “I got 120 numbers, passenger and freight.” He started spotting as a lad with his grandfather, carried on until he was 16. Alan started when he was eight, gave it up for a while after starting work – just as steam was giving way to diesel – and came back to it in the 1980s.
We discuss the quiet thrill of checking whether cement trains are Class 70s, the sort of technical stuff that fascinates so many spotters, in the way birdwatchers or computer addicts or anyone with a specialist list-ticking interest is fascinated by data they can become expert in. And we edge towards the obvious question: what exactly is the appeal of trainspotting? The three of them look slightly bemused.
“It’s just a hobby,” says Alan. “It’s just like somebody collecting stamps,” says Steve. But surely there’s a difference. Stamp-collecting, or collecting coins or thimbles, is a largely solitary activity; trainspotting is clearly communal. “Yes, it’s the sociability,” says Malcolm. “I come to meet like-minded people...” Whoooosh... a grey blur hurtles through the station. “London, King’s Cross, 43309,” says Steve, no hesitation. “Got it already.”
Back at the National Railway Museum, artist Andrew Cross says he started spotting when he was 10. “But I wasn’t good at it. I never quite completed anything. I didn’t keep my notebooks. Some people are so meticulous about recording things; I just have fragments.”
It’s that meticulousness, that preoccupation with ticking off numbers, that Amy Banks, curator of the six-month-long Trainspotting season, hones in on.
“It’s about completism; it gives the hobby a sense of purpose,” she says and opens a box full of vintage spotters’ ledgers, with columns of numbers in blue-black ink. There are notebooks detailing the 288 trains operating around Norwich in 1955 (282 steam, six diesel) and old Boots folders full of murky photos of steam locos.
“But trainspotting isn’t really about numbers and timetables,” she says. “The numbers are like a diary or a photo album; each number represents the experience and the memories. People remember who they were there with. It’s about people having a really good time out with their friends, a trip down memory lane.”
The season will share that trip through talks, a new trail and spotters’ memories and stories, annotated by poet and The Yorkshire Post columnist Ian McMillan, who has written a poem with a punning title he should be either very proud or very ashamed of: Love Me Tender.
There will be pictures from the archives – No 60021 steaming into Selby in 1960, No 60118 steaming out of Leeds in 1965, Nos 3442 (“The Great Marquess”) and 4472 simply steaming at Harrogate in 1964. In some, schoolboys in caps, short trousers and knee-length socks gaze up in awe at the great piston-churning beasts.
Andrew Cross could have been one of them. He remembers “station waiting rooms on dank winter days, the grime around engine sheds, industrial decline, egg sandwiches, the smell of diesel”. But he veers away from nostalgia.
“Trainspotting is a radical position to take in society; it’s radical in the sense that it alarms people in the mainstream,” he says. “And it’s all about place for me; it’s about being there; about anticipation.” He talks about “exploration and the contemplation of time and place”.
To illustrate his point, he plays some of the dozen films he’s made for Parallel Tracks, his exhibition commission. They offer a contemporary take on an old hobby and are, he says, about “going out into the middle of nowhere on my own”, being a train-watcher rather than a trainspotter, waiting watchfully with his camera.
A long freight train glides slowly across an American desert; another, even longer, trundles along the main street of a small town, a great, slow procession of wagons. It sounds drearily uneventful, but in fact it’s mesmeric, hypnotic.
“Can you hear the way the train creaks: oh it’s marvellous. And something wonderful happens in a minute.” It does, just as the film ends, but you’ll have to go to the museum to see what (it involves a cyclist).
I ask how many wagons pass by. He says he has never counted them. I guess that’s why he’s a failed trainspotter.
• Trainspotting runs at the National Railway Museum, York, from September 26 to March 1, 2015. Free entry. Phone 0844 815 3139, www.nrm.org.uk.