Michael Williams

The Trains Now Departed – and how railway enthusiasm became respectable again

April 24, 2015 Blog


IS RAILWAY enthusiasm becoming respectable at last? Here’s an extract from the introduction to my new book The Trains Now Departed, out on May 7:

‘AND why not, indeed? This sense of what the railways of the past signify to us has been heightened recently by the renaissance of railway enthusiasm. Gone are the days when those with an interest in railways were derided as trainspotters, anoraks or rivet counters, and mocked in the routine of almost every second-rate comedian on the stand-up circuit. The mark of respectability came in autumn 2014 when the National Railway Museum staged an exhibition called Trainspotting, in which various celebrities “came out” to declare their interest in what 20 years ago might have been an unspeakable taboo.

Actually, railway enthusiasm never really went away and – despite the mockers – has a long and noble history. The first railway enthusiast can be reckoned to be the 21-year-old actress Fanny Kemble who in 1830, just before the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, charmed George Stephenson into letting her ride with him on the locomotive. The engine, she gasped, was “a magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace. Recognition of what was to become a national pursuit initially came when Stephenson’s 1825 engine Locomotion was put on public display on a plinth at Darlington station in 1857. Soon, upright professional men indulged their hobby in a manner not dissimilar to butterfly collecting or philately. By the turn of century they had their own magazine and their own club in London, the Railway Club – as smart a place to be in its own way as the Garrick or the Oxford & Cambridge.

Before its decline into unfashionability in the 1980s, trainspotting had become a national cult in which men and boys turned out in all weathers on platforms all over the land, accompanied by their “Bible” – a well-thumbed copy of the Ian Allan Locospotters’ Guide. I recall having to fight my way to the end of the platform at King’s Cross and Paddington through throngs of boys with notebooks and lapels plastered with enamel badges of their favourite engines. Then we discovered Pink Floyd and girls – and all grew up.

These days things have come full circle, with wealthy hedge fund managers in the City indulging their baby-boomer passions by spending millions buying and restoring vintage express steam locomotives to run on the main line – motivated not by profit, but by the sheer joy of the thing. This is probably not surprising, since railway enthusiasm is the ultimate nostalgia in the imagination of what Orwell called a “nation of collectors.” And why should such pleasures have to be defended? As the historian Roger Lloyd wrote in his book The Fascination of Railways: “I have never met a lover of railways who felt the slightest need to produce any justification for his pleasure. Why should he?” The NRM even had the confidence to commission some verse from the poet Ian McMillan giving trainspotting a modern family feel:

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?’

April 24, 2015 Blog

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