Trainspotters. Photo: Dmitri Kasterine, text: Andrew Martin.

Trainspotters, Clapham Junction, 1979. © Dmitri Kasterine.

The Death of Trainspotting by Andrew Martin:

It took me a day and a half of searching before I found any trainspotters in London. They were standing at the far end of platform eight at King’s Cross. David Burrell carried a camera, Paul Rea a notebook. They were both in their sixties, both down from Manchester, and staying at West Hampstead, which they found convenient for Willseden Junction. Our conversation was hampered by several modern railway blights. There was nowhere to sit, and then there was nowhere to dispose of our cardboard coffee cups; we kept being interrupted by announcements telling us not to lose sight of our belongings. Our conversation was in fact a study in melancholia, covering many of the causes of the decline of trainspotting, including the latest and deadliest of all …

Paul told me he’d started trainspotting in the fifties ‘by standing on a bit of unadopted track near Newton Heath maintenance depot. We weren’t supposed to stand there but nobody minded.’ In the early eighties he’d regularly come down to London on spotting trips with the Lancashire Locomotive Society, and I asked if this body was thriving. ‘Thriving! We used to fill up a fifty-two eater coach every time. Now it’s a mini bus with twelve at the most.’

The three of us were standing next to a typical sort of modern train: a ‘multiple unit’. It would strike the casual passer-by as a series of carriages with no locomotive. “Not very interesting is it?’ I suggested. ‘Not really’, he conceded, ‘but in my mind this place is still full of Atlantics [big steam engines]. I still see it the way it was in The Ladykillers’. I asked the two whether they’d had any trouble from the railway authorities. ‘Two years ago’, said David, ‘when I was taking pictures on Manchester station, I was questioned by a station official. Nothing came of it, but it was, you know, close questioning.’

Others have been more greatly inconvenienced by the increased security across the network, and it appears that one unexpected result of the villainy of Osama bin Laden could be the death of trainspotting. It come down to a question of identity. Who is to say that the three blokes on the end of the platform with their notebooks, cameras, flasks of coffee and Blue Riband biscuits might not be members of Al Qaeda?

The June issue of The Railway Magazine reports an ‘alarming’ increase in the number of letters from readers complaining about the heavy-handed policing of stations. It also draws attention to a poster recently published by the British Transport Police urging the public to look out for photographers who seem in any way ‘odd’. The Railway Magazine magnanimously concedes  that photographers of trains might look odd to some. But haven’t we Britons always prided ourselves on our oddness?

‘It’s not a systematic persecution’ says Chris Milner, deputy editor of the Magazine. ‘You just get these pockets of jobsworths who don’t know the guidelines’. After the London Tube bombings of July 7th 2005, Mr Milner was party to the drawing up of guidelines intended for people wanting to take photographs on railway stations. They are accepted by Network Rail and the British Transport Police, who indeed publish them on their websites. Photographers are expected to report to station staff, and say what they’re about. They are of course expected to keep away from the platform edge. Given the nanny-ish mindset of modern railways (which determines that all train fronts and rears must be painted a revolting yellow) it comes as no surprise that railway photographers are asked not to wear high visibility jackets – this for fear that they will be confused with station staff.

Mr. Milner detects an irony in the implicit wariness of railway photographers. ‘On the day of the London tube bombings, sir Ian Blair was asking for people to come forward with any pictures they might have taken.’ Austin Mitchell, MP and keen amateur photographers, sees another irony: ‘We are all photographed dozens of times every day on CCTV, so while the government can photograph us, we can’t photograph anything else.’ According to Mr. Mitchell, who was recently stopped from taking pictures at Leeds station, ‘Photography is a public right, and that should be made absolutely clear.’

… an extract from a longer article written for The Times in 2008.