Future historians trying to get to the heart of the early 1960s should inspect closely photographs of any major railway station in the land. Kings Cross, Euston, Crewe, York, Edinburgh, you name them. Here the platform ends were thronged by armies of adolescent boys. Adorned with enamel badges of their favourite locos, they munched on Marmite sandwiches and chewed on Juicy Fruits, while feverishly underlining numbers from their Ian Allan ABC guides.
This was an age of innocence – “before the Beatles’ first LP” as poet Philip Larkin famously put it – when fast express engines such as “Duchesses” and “Deltics” were sexier than anything else in the universe. You didn’t brag about having sex with your girlfriend, you boasted about “copping” a “Streak”.
Now National Express, the train company that runs the line from Kings Cross to the north wants to ban trainspotters by putting in electronic gates at platforms. This is a move backed by Rail Minister Lord Adonis, who is offering government money for “gating” to help avoid fare evasion. In reality it is a sop to help cash-strapped rail companies during the recession.
But it will create more enmity than goodwill. Trainspotters have been cheerleaders for the railways for more than 170 years and have never gone away. Today’s celebrity rail buffs include Brad Pitt, Pete Waterman, Peter Snow, Ian Hislop and Michael Palin. It is a mistake to assume all railfans are geekish losers. “The trainspotter has become everybody’s favourite wally,” says Nicholas Whitaker in his book Platform Souls – a kind of Fever Pitch for railfans “With race and gender off the ‘right-on’ comedian’s agenda, here is a man you can titter at in safety, politically correct agenda undiminished. The identikit is a gormless loner, with dandruff and halitosis – a sad case obsessed by numbers and timetables.”
But how wrong! Six weeks ago, thousands of ordinary British families turned out to celebrate the maiden main line journey of “Tornado”, the first new steam express engine to be built in Britain for nearly 50 years. It wasn’t all nostalgia. I was there with my small son and baby daughter among 2,000 others on the platform at King’s Cross, quietly thinking, like other parents, that in these insecure times it might be better to grow up to be a train driver than a banker after all!
Michael Williams’s forthcoming book ‘On the Slow Line: a journey by train through the heart of Britain’ is to be published by Preface