A Year on Track

The first anniversary of my return to trainspotting is upon me and I thought it would be interesting to compare the first time around with the present. Clearly the railways have moved on massively since the early 1970’s when I first left school and finally had the opportunity to indulge my passion for trains. Back then all express passenger services were hauled by locomotives – a rarity today. Indeed, I witnessed the writing on the wall for loco haulage with the advent of the HST’s in the late 1970’s – multiple units would be the future of passenger travel. In the eighties I watched as many loved locomotive classes dwindled in number and finally became extinct. New classes appeared but there was a continual shrinking of numbers as the decline of the fifties and sixties and the move away from rail continued. Freight changed – wagonload traffic ceased taking with it the traditional mixed goods and condemning the large railway yards to a lingering death. Block workings would be the area in which rail would compete with road. At the end of the 1980’s it was time to move on – aeroplanes beckoned and I followed their call. It would be 24 years before I made my return. As I pottered around the skies, got married and got involved with football, the railways underwent huge changes. Privatisation happened and then some parts of the railway were re-nationalised, most notably the rail network and its maintenance. Fares went up faster than inflation but services apparently improved enough to start attracting people back to the trains. Freight also started to grow again. So, that sets the scene…

The first time around my decisions were initially based on a desire to see every train – after all that is what one assumes trainspotting is about. However, like all hobbies it grows into something more than that. The first stage is the desire to photograph some of what you see. Following rapidly behind is the desire to record those locomotives you’ve ‘had’ for haulage. Then you start recording the performance of locomotives – timing their speed between mileposts and the times between stops: Estimating the horsepower based on the load being hauled. Is that what you thought trainspotters do? Or did you think they just stand on a wet platform in an anorak writing down numbers? And I’ve only scratched the surface of the hobby in this article. I got involved in all the activities listed above! I travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of elusive first sightings whilst recording my haulage and taking photos – many of which are now proving to valuable historical documents. So, simplifying, the first time around I was a trainspotter with a camera.

Here I am today and the immediate difference is clear – I’m now very much a photographer with a book to log train numbers. The urge to see every loco has been replaced by a desire to record something that can be defined as having a purpose. So now I find myself travelling locally – seeking to record London’s railways with perhaps a slant towards current freight operations. I have set up a group on Flickr called Freight Trains in London which has a slowly growing membership. In the past year I’ve visited several locations that I never went to in my past spotting career and I’ve travelled on a couple of routes that I never did in the past. There are also some new routes available now that weren’t before, so there’s lots of interesting things to see and do. And it’s proved very easy to tie in the rail travel with the footie so the two interests compliment each other very well – except when going to Leiston where I’d need to hitch a ride on a nuclear container to get close to the ground… 😉

Sometimes, new experiences are on your doorstep… I have passed through Silkstream junction on many occasions – I’m tempted to say hundreds and given my love of the Midland mainline from St.Pancras that might well be the truth. I’ve also driven past it, visited the RAF Museum which is beside it. But I’d never actually gone there to photograph trains in my past trainspotting career despite it being less than 5 miles from my house. So, with just a few days to go to the anniversary of my return to trainspotting I caught the 143 bus and travelled to Hendon Town Hall and walked the short distance to Silkstream Junction. Here are some of the photographs…


  1. It was a big deal to me when we no longer saw a trainman waving from the caboose! The caboose was gone! My husband has been a switchman with Union Pacific Railroad (Southern Pacific until a merger) since 1973. And the changes to the way the trains run, general appearance, and both additions and reductions in the design of the cars have been a topic of discussion for 40 years. I doubt many people even notice. But you’ve been “noticing” for a very long time, Martin. I wish we’d been photo-documentarians along the way. Your photos will be important historical records!

    1. Thanks Debra 🙂 It’s great to read that small bit of history you have mentioned in your response – The Brake Van (as we call the Caboose over here) was once an integral part of every freight train and I used to photograph those especially to record the many liveries they appeared in. I once contemplated buying one as a garden shed!.. But even the British ones are too large for a small urban garden 😦 I must try to dig out some of my Brake Van Images.

      ps – I now have Donner Pass on Railworks and their latest route is the LA to San Diego Surfliner. Definitely off my beaten turf but not too far from you I think 😉

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