British Studies Web Pages

Youth Culture and Fashion



The British have something of a reputation for being a little bit eccentric, and nowhere does that show itself more than in what they do in their spare time. From going for picnics in the rain (not usually planned) to playing cricket, we do many things which confuse people from other countries. There are some sports and hobbies, however, which confuse even British people, perhaps the strangest being trainspotting.

Some readers may be familiar with the word 'trainspotting' from the tide of the popular film starring Ewan McGregor, but may not be aware that it is the name of a hobby popular with several thousand people around Britain, known as trainspotters, or sometimes as 'anoraks' because of their choice of clothing, whatever the weather. These people can be found most often standing at the ends of platforms at major stations in the U.K., clutching notebooks and pens and sometimes pairs of binoculars, but they can also be seen staring over railway bridges or sitting on fences by the railway. The question is: 'What on Earth are they doing? '

Britain is where the railway as a public transport system started and it has been a part of everyday life, loved by some, hated by others, for over 150 years. At the peak of the popularity of trains at the end of the Victorian era, Britain was covered with railway track and there were many companies offering to take people where they wanted to go by this quick, but rather dirty and noisy method of travel. With time and with the increasing popularity of the motor car, the number of private companies got smaller until the government decided to create British Rail, one national company controlling all the railways. (Strangely enough, history wants to go in circles and recently the government sold British Rail back to private companies again!) Whoever controls the railways, for over a hundred years in Britain there have been tens of thousands of locomotives, hundreds of thousands of passenger carriages and millions of commercial wagons in operation at any time. These are what interest trainspotters.

Locomotives are not all the same: the Eurostar which takes passengers and cars under the English Channel to France is different from the Intercity 125s that rush commuters long distances at high speed, and they are both different from the little shunters that work around stations and railway yards. Not only are there different types of locomotive, but each locomotive has an individual number; some even have names like "The City of Birmingham" or "The Boy's Brigade". Trainspotters collect these names and, more importantly, the numbers.

In all weathers these fanatical hobbyists stand by railways for hours at a time. They usually take packed lunches of sandwiches and flasks of tea with them - and every time a train goes past they will write down the locomotive type, its number and its name if it has one, in their notebooks. Every passenger carriage and commercial or "goods" wagon has its own number too, and some extreme trainspotters will try to write down the numbers of every single carriage or wagon in a train! Experienced trainspotters will have shelves and shelves of notebooks at home full of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of numbers which really mean very little to anyone except other trainspotters or people who work for the railway.

When they meet, looking for trains or at trainspotters' clubs (which often meet in station buffets!) these unusual people exchange information about what kind of trains they have seen, where they saw them and of course what their numbers were. It is a happy trainspotter indeed who can tell his amazed friends of seeing an experimental train or a very old type of locomotive, or a normal train in a strange place.

So, that is trainspotting. Most ordinary people think it is a very abnormal hobby, and in everyday English, "trainspotter" means "a boring person". Judge for yourself!
Steve Heighes


anorak - jacket with a hood
platform - flat surface at a station from which passengers get on and off trains
(to) clutch - hold tightly in the hand(s)
peak - highest point
commuter - a person who, travels to work in the town from his home in the suburb or in the country
shunter - a railway vehicle that moves wagons and carriages from one track to another
flask - a kind of bottle for keeping drinks hot or cold

Editor's note:
Steve Heighes is the Director of Studies at Ability English School
Warszawa, ul. Mazowiecka 12,
tel.: 8276941, 8272029, 8282526
e-mail: Published by kind permission of "The World of English"

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