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A Guide to Trainspotting

Trainspotting first originated in the UK in the 1940’s, when a young PR trainee working in Waterloo spotted a gap in the market for a guide to inform young locomotive enthusiasts.

Ian Allan (who only very recently passed away) had noticed that these enthusiasts regularly wrote to the rail company he worked for, requesting information relating to the specifications of the company’s locomotives. He suggested that this information be collected in a book or pamphlet, so that it could be disseminated easily to those who enquired. Although his suggestion was rejected by his bosses, he took it upon himself to create such a guide, and subsequently form a “loco-spotting” club to advise members and teach train safety awareness to enthusiasts. Here is a quick guide to trainspotting:

The Basics

There are a few different types of trainspotting practiced in the UK. The type of spotting that you end up doing will usually depend on your individual interests. Some spotters desire photos of the trains, whilst others just enjoy the satisfaction of having seen them in real life, and they do not feel like they require proof. Some spotters also take an interest in old rail tickets, timetables, rail signage or other railway related memorabilia.

Some folk have chosen to rid themselves of monikers like trainspotter or spotter, because these words are often perceived to have negative connotations. Words like “bashers”, who like to ride the trains, and “photters”, who prefer to take pictures, are now more commonly used in hobby circles.

Join a Network

Whilst traditional media depictions often show trainspotters to be lonely individuals, this portrayal is far from the truth. Most spotters actually get the most out of their hobby when they treat it as a social one. Join a train spotting network and share hints and tips with your fellow enthusiasts. These networks are great places to find out about special train appearances and where to go for the best spots. If there is a chance that an old locomotive is going to be running next weekend, as part of a film production, these networks are the places to find out. A site to start with could be Rail UK Forums, but of course there are others.

Get the Equipment

Another cliché about trainspotters is that they are always found clothed in anoraks and woolly hats. Whilst you don’t have to wear this “uniform” at all times, it is a good idea to find weather-appropriate clothing, such as a waterproof jacket. Many trainspotters spend a lot of time in the outdoors, so you should choose the right items, to help to make yourself as comfortable as possible. Other equipment that is recommended includes an up-to-date spotters guide, writing equipment, phone and perhaps a camera. Some people prefer to record their sightings using a Dictaphone or more commonly now on their mobile phone.

Picking the Right Spot

As well as discussing the best places for rare finds, you will also be able to talk about the best places for more casual spotting with your social network. For those interested in modern trains, transport hubs such as Clapham Junction, York Central and Birmingham New Street are great places to go, purely because of the sheer volume of trains that pass through these stations.

If you are searching for older, working locomotives, there are plenty of steam railways still in operation in Britain, which are largely unconnected to the main rail network, and often run on a pleasure basis.


There are no real rules to follow as part of the hobby of trainspotting, however you must obey the rules of the area that you are spotting in. Whilst you may be tempted to break or “bend” the rules in order to spot a train which is high on your list, it is highly recommended that you do not break the law or trespass on private property in order to do this. Not only does it bring the hobby into disrepute, but it also puts your safety at risk.

There have been instances of injury or death which have occurred because of people trespassing on railway lines or in restricted sections of train stations. Your presence may also be a danger to those using the trains. If trainspotters are found to repeatedly violate the rules, train companies are more likely to tighten restrictions, which could make it more difficult for people to engage in the hobby in future.