Ian Allan Railtour engine 7029 Clun Castle being serviced at Leeds in September 1967 Geoff Marsh

The man who organised train-spotting dies.

Published: 3rd July 2015

World famous legacy left by Ian Allen

Ian Allan is a name deservedly recognised the across the world by anyone with a slight interest in railways. For many, probably now over 50, his name is synonymous with his series of ‘ABC’ and ‘Combined Volume’ train number books. He died one day away from his 93rd birthday on June 28 2015 and was born on June 29 1922 at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham,

The successors to his ‘spotting’ books are still published today in various formats but in far smaller quantities as the train number collecting hobby declines and the digital age is ever embracing. Many though will not know about his publishing empire based at Shepperton in southwest London which covered magazines and books. He also ran a travel agency, a car business and ran the Great Cockcroft Railway.

He realised that there was an untapped market in the rail enthusiast sector in the early 1940s while working as a junior clerk for the Southern Railway and reading many letters requesting locomotive information from enthusiasts. Despite the wartime paper restrictions and other difficulties in not giving away information deemed useful; to the enemy, he published his first book during the war

Simple as ABC

He also started a rail enthusiast club which organised outings to sheds and ran special enthusiast trains. It is said that his club had over 200,000 members by 1968 to which he sold his railway books which were updated annually creating phenomenal repeat sales figures.

He called his train number books ‘ABC’ of the various railway companies at the time. He also further divided up the series into steam and electric locomotive number books further increasing sales to a willing young audience who saved their pocket money for each new issue. He expanded the theme to other transport areas such as buses, trams and trolleybuses.

These booklets were intended to provide information on the locomotive fleets listing all the numbers of each type. Purchasers used these ABCs to mark off the numbers they had seen and took them to platform ends to be used as an instant reference source. The success of this brought the formation of the Ian Allan Loco-spotters’ Club which soon had a six figure membership.

Making money from closures

The membership was used to fill special trains the demand for as driven by the combined effects of the 1955 Modernisation Plan and the 1960s Beeching closures. This meant the end of steam and brought many last trains over doomed routes. Members of the club had to promise in writing not to interfere with railway working or trespass on railway property or they could be expelled!

The end of steam in August 1968 is reckoned to be the high point of the enthusiast era and by which time, most of the route closures had taken place. Ian Allen started a monthly magazine called Trains Illustrated which has morphed into the highly respected main rail industry publication Modern Railways. Other transport related magazines followed plus numerous books taking over respected companies such as the Oxford Publishing Company and Midland Publishing.

There was a major shake-up in the railway magazine market a few years ago when Ian Allen sold its railway magazines and IOPC also sold its Railway Magazine. Modern Railways continues to flourish while Railways Illustrated has sunk to a very low circulation over the last few years.

Wartime railway career

In 1939 Ian Allan joined the Southern Railway at Waterloo and assisted with the production of The Southern Railway Staff Magazine, his introduction to publishing. After the war he started his publishing company named after himself. He bought a share in the Hastings Miniature Railway in 1948 and within 20 years owned the Great Cockcrow Railway (GCR) near Chertsey and earlier this year was seen on a First Great Western service wearing his GCR grease top cap.

Mr Allen was in the vanguard of breaking the 1968 British Railways steam ban and took up several high profile positions in railway preservation’s early days. He was president of the Main Line Steam Trust based at Loughborough, vice-president of the Transport Trust and the Heritage Railways Association, chairman of the Association of Independent Railways. He was also a patron of the Mid-Hants Railway based at Alresford and was honoured with the OBE 20 years ago.

He was truly a rail giant to millions of kids (and grown-ups)!

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