End of the Line
"Whenever I see a heavy freight train go by, it gets me right here,” says David, my guide into the world of trainspotting. We’re standing at the end of an anonymous rail platform in Peterborough as a huge black locomotive strains against the weight of more than a dozen heavy-looking carriages and slowly begins to tug its cargo off to goodness knows where. I reach for my notepad and write ‘Big train puffing away’ quickly, hoping my new buddy Dave doesn’t notice how little I know about the machines that are his lifelong passion.
“People always look at me a bit strangely, because it’s hard to explain why I feel like that about trains. Perhaps it’s a blokeish thing, seeing the sheer power of the engine pulling that weight. Perhaps it’s because freight trains are a visible sign of what drives the economy. Whatever it is, there’s something about them.”
He doesn’t look quite so excited when a bland, purple commuter train dully pulls into Peterborough, ejecting a great gob of unhappy looking salarymen and women. “I can’t see much that’s appealing about that train,” he says. “But I’m sure someone will find it interesting.”
Most of us don’t get the same reaction when we see a train in action. Britain already has the most expensive ticket prices in Europe and many of us cram ourselves into packed commuter trains every day, paying thousands of pounds a year for the privilege.
Following an increase in the rate of inflation used to set ticket costs, train companies will be able to hike their prices by up to 11 per cent, meaning the average season ticket will shoot up by £138 to £2,364 – just under a tenth of the £26,000 average wage. Some people could pay up to five grand just to get to work. After George Osborne announced the imminent price rises, Tory MPs in constituencies rebelled, fearing the cost of transport could see a lynch mob beating down doors. It’s little wonder few of us truly love trains any more.
Of course, no matter how much the rest of us grumble about the state of our train network, there is one group of people who will forever hold affection for anything that travels on two rails: trainspotters. My date in Peterborough, 63-year-old David Thornhill (pictured), has dedicated his life to trains, partly out of a passion for the network and its machines, but also out a dedication to what he calls “an environmentally friendly, socially equitable society”.
He put in time as a trainspotter back in the 1960s, an era considered the heyday of the pursuit, when he ran a magazine called World Steam that allowed rail enthusiasts to trace the last of the steam trains – a powerful emblem of the Industrial Revolution – as they puffed their last journeys on domestic and foreign rail networks.
After this, he worked on the railways for most of his life and is now an activist with the Campaign for Better Transport. A spritely pensioner with thick hair and stylish clothes, he even met his girlfriend through his passion. She works alongside him at the CBT, although they don’t live together and she isn’t quite as loco about locomotives as him.
“I don’t really use the term ‘trainspotter’ any more except in a satirical way,” he explains. “Rail enthusiasts prefer the term ‘railfan’, which is an American phrase considered a bit more politically correct. The old term had a negative connotation of a badly dressed, dysfunctional man at the end of a platform.”