by Geoff Marsh

Trainspotting explained and its rise and fall

Published: 20th October 2014

The National Railway Museum explains the origins of trainspotting this winter

The National Railway Museum (NRM) has organised what they are calling a ‘Trainspotting’ season this winter which seeks to explain why the hobby exists and delves into its origins.

Today, it is likely that most people involved in this hobby will be over 60 because it is only those who will remember steam trains in regular service.


Humans have always collected things whether it be spoons, dolls, thimbles, beermats, stamps or coins. Train spotting is another version of collecting but participants collect numbers and today caries an unfortunate reputation.

Its origins, the NRM says, go back to the dawn of the railways but it became popular in the 1930s until World War Two and then became a nationwide craze in its aftermath. Why should this be so?

The 1930s were an era of fast streamlined steam locomotives culminating in July 1938 when Mallard took the world steam record reaching 126mph. Trains became luxurious and were a glamourous way to travel. The war then brought austerity and hardship and at the end of it, some train number books were published for train spotters.

A Southern Railway clerk received an increasing amount of requests for locomotive information so he decided to compile lists of engine numbers and publish them in books as well as with individual locomotive names plus operational and construction details.

The clerk’s name? Ian Allen. Thus started his publishing empire which turned into a world famous company

Steam train numbers

Just before WW2, there were tens of thousands of steam locomotive numbers to collect. In 1937 for example, there were 19,817 steam locomotives pulling 42,656 carriages plus 618,948 freight wagons 17,790 Guards Vans.

Why were Ian Allen’s train number books so popular? It is thought that in the aftermath of the war and its chaos, there was a desire for order and permanence by the kids of the day. Train spotting provided this order as well as instant companionship on platforms because complete strangers knew they shared a common interest.

Extreme train spotting

Collecting locomotive numbers evolved into more extreme types of spotting with many turning to collecting wagon and carriage numbers. This was an almost impossible challenge to complete given the quantity of rolling stock on the railways.

As lines closed from the 1950s, and steam began to be replaced by diesel and electric locomotives as a result of the 1955 modernisation plan, many people wanted to travel on the lines to be closed. As locomotives were scrapped from 1955, many wanted to travel behind each class before they were consigned to the scrapyard. These changes were accelerated after the 1963 Beeching Report and brought a new wave of trainspotting activity recording the passing way of railway life.

What’s in a name?

The railways gave names to many locomotives, Mallard, Leander, King Edward1 and Lord Nelson for example. The names reflected the World in those 1930s and 1940s using names of countries in what was The British Empire or WW2 airbases such as Tangmere, or shipping lines such as British India Line or army battalions such as Scots Guardsman.

So collecting numbers provided instant friendships and created safe social locations such as on platforms or railway viewing vantage points. It is also now acknowledged to have been a source of education as many researched the name of the engine.

Photography and security

Even today at places such as Nuneaton, Doncaster and Eastleigh, enthusiasts will gather and strike up instant conversations. Many take flasks and sandwiches and yes, they do wear anoraks and most passengers don’t understand the camaraderie.

But of course, millions travel on our preserved railways, wave at the driver or fireman and probably do not consider themselves enthusiasts or part of the associated spotting fraternity! Preserved railways are a huge industry and nobody thinks twice about any stigma visiting them.

These days many station staff try to tell you that you are not allowed to take photographs at stations, For example, Network Rail platform staff told the editor of that it was not permitted to take pictures at Birmingham New Street and then Northern Rail staff did similar at Blackpool.

Network Rail [lack-off] accountability

The latter apologised saying there was no restriction while Network Rail will simply not respond to queries about Birmingham despite the Network Rail chairman becoming involved. He did his bit but his staff still decline to respond to requests as to why they deem it forbidden to take a picture at a station.

The usual answer is security but enthusiasts are the acknowledged ears and eyes of the platform and will immediately notice any strange goings on and report them. There is no presumption of privacy if you are in a public place which stations clearly are.

Highlights of the NRM season

The NRM curators are giving talks about the trainspotting hobby through the ages. The subjects covered vary and range between ‘Catching the train’ and how photographer W H Whitworth tried to photograph every main line locomotive between the 1920s to 1955. His visual record, along with a few notable others created a useful research tool looking back at scenes around the UK.

The number of the beast looks at name and number plates, headcode discs and shed plates, all used to identify trains and locomotives. On 13 November and 5 February 2015, the NRM looks at why names were selected for locomotives and who these people were.

Computerised spotting is considered on 20 November and 26 February when from 1971 British Rail introduced an American computer system for managing locomotives and rolling stock This talk looks at how collecting numbers was changed forever. Ian Allen’s books and other subsequent publications are discussed on 27 November and 29 January 2015

The Ian Allan books fed and created a trainspotting craze in the 1950s and 1960s and half a century later the amount of trainspotting literature is increasing.

Executive trainspotting and difficult engines

These curious subjects are the subject of talks on 11 December and 15 January and examines why some executives used trainspotting as a kind of mental challenge to remove the boredom of long train journeys. And on 18 December, the subject of ‘hard to see’ locomotives is considered and why were some engines notoriously tricky to spot?

It’s a fascinating season with something for all those interested in our railways!

External Links

Liverpool street station in the UK at rush hour

Help and advice with train travel in the UK

Train travel in the UK should be a pleasure, not a headache. So if you’re taking a train on the UK railway, start your journey here. We’ve lots of hints, tips and advice to help you find your way around, travel smoothly and arrive in style by train.

Read more

eurostars passing at 375mph from the drivers seat in france


Welcome to our #railchat page. Our #railchat discussions take place over on Twitter, with our resident expert Phil Marsh. If you would like to get involved, please do join us, and use the dedicated hashtag #railchat. See our previous discussions below:

Read more

Old steam train in Shanty Town Museum

Locomotives & Engines

Our rail network would be nothing without them. From Stephenson's Rocket to British Rail Class 92 and beyond, explore the facts, information and anecdotes behind the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that built the age of the train.

Read more


Latest Tweets


Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh to London Kings Cross by Train

Book in advance with and save 85% advanced bookings.

From £21.00

Buy now

Millenium Dome, London

Birmingham New Street to London Euston by Train

Book in advance with and save 92% on advance bookings.

From £6

Buy now

You may also like...



Follow us on Twitter and become part of our rail community! is the easy way to buy cheap train tickets online.



Control your business fuel costs with a supermarket fuel card – free to apply, no ongoing account charges and no monthly minimum spend.