Trainspotting unites my family – we share the pleasure of intricate details


I’m a small Black woman wearing a long purple puffer coat over black sequined Dr Martens boots. I don’t look like your stereotypical trainspotter, railfan or ferroequinologist – a white male in an anorak, writing in a notebook, standing at the furthest end of the platform. I do things differently. When I’m travelling on the railway, I always arrive early to take photos or films of trains on my phone. Passersby look bemused. Have they just spotted the only Black female trainspotter in Britain?

Not quite. I’ll text these images to my boys, once I’m settled on the train and they’ll text back saying “Great pics” and occasionally get very excited if I’ve videoed a rare engine.

I do it for my teenage boys, the real railfans with astonishing, encyclopaedic knowledge about trains, tracks and timetables, who go out on proper trainspotting trips, who talk about little else at dinner in the evening. But I also do it for myself. I love railway stations, the hustle and bustle and possibility of hundreds of destinations and, more importantly, the trains all lined up and ready to go. The ultimate joy is being on a fast direct train, watching the countryside blur by, knowing I have several delicious in-between hours when I can simply enjoy the ride. I detest changing trains, the prospect of a fragmented journey, the higher likelihood of missing a connection and being late. Because the most important thing for me is arriving on time.

Back in the day, trains were trains. They were the fastest route from A to B and a godsend for a nondriver like myself. I’ve visited most major cities in the UK by train for my job. I’m a freelance poet and writer, so I get paid to travel to events. I would spend the journey rehearsing, reading or admiring the view. I didn’t check out the trains’ defining features unless there wasn’t enough luggage space or I was lucky enough to travel first-class from London to Edinburgh in a large, plump, comfy seat, which reminded me of my childhood when trains still had closed compartments and meshed overhead racks. Luxury conjured up the past. Maybe I was remembering a time when trains were newer. But generally, trains were a convenient means to an end, not the end itself.

Everything changed when I had my two boys. Through them, I became an honorary railfan. My older one, Solomon, now 17, had an early and strong affinity with trains. By the age of two he had identified his favourite train of all – the Class 465, a four-car electric multiple unit, our local train. One day, passing the railway station, he started chuckling with pleasure. We stopped at the railings. A train was waiting at the far platform. It looked like a 465 to me by its shape and size, but Solomon had noticed it had indented doors, a different livery, was five cars instead of four and most important of all, the first three digits of its number were 376. It thrilled him that he had discovered not only a new train, but a new set of numbers, too. Classes 465 and 376 are common, but each train has its own unique number, the equivalent of a human name. That is part of the appeal. Specifics. Detail.

My younger boy, Valentine, 15, came to trains through a different route: new technology. I was walking past our local station when I saw something special. It was sleek not chunky, predominantly dark blue not white and it didn’t have a flat front, it had a snout! It didn’t stay at the station long enough for me to take in any more details. I didn’t have a smartphone to capture it, but my heart was thumping with excitement, the image printed on my mind forever. I rushed home to tell the family. Something shifted in my world. If such a train could exist in my rundown local station, anything was possible. Science fiction just became science fact. I had just come face to face with the future.

Passion is all in the detail. The more you perceive, the better it gets. I had just seen the Class 395, the Javelin, aka Britain’s fastest train. A few months later there would be one leaving our station every half hour to London and they would be commonplace. But the first time I encountered one, all my senses were heightened and the first time I travelled on one, I held on to my seat when it accelerated out of Ebbsfleet International like a Boeing 737. Maybe that’s how my boys feel when they see a new train that looks quite ordinary to me. They experience a fresh detail that thrills them.

Valentine adored the Javelin. My husband, Jeremy, had already made a fleet of trains out of tissue boxes that the boys regularly played with. Valentine insisted Jeremy make a Javelin and, once it was made, Valentine carried this enormous toy everywhere in his pushchair. Trips became fraught because both boys wanted to travel on their favourite train – the Class 465 versus the Javelin. We negotiated with them – we’d take the 465 on the way there, the Javelin back home. Everyone was happy.

My husband is also a railfan. Having the boys has given him permission to indulge his passion. When you pursue a hobby, you derive an intricate pleasure. I love literature, because it’s not just about reading an interesting story, it’s all the technical stuff that makes it transcendent – the nuts and bolts, the narrative style, the turn of a sentence, the positioning of a single word that changes everything. It’s the same with trains. My boys break down trains into sensory and technical, geeky details: whether the train is on time or late and how that impacts the timetable; the exterior design; its livery and whether it has been well maintained or is filthy; the particular class of train, eg a 465, and its individual number that denotes its subclass, eg 465901, built by Metro-Cammell, which means that it has first-class seats, Solomon’s favourite; the comfort and number of seats; aisle width; the quality of the First Class if it exists and whether it has been declassified; the level of refurbishment, whether it has toilets and if they are accessible; the sound of the motors or engines; the quality of the overall ride; the time it takes to accelerate from 0-60mph; the year it was introduced, the year it will be replaced; and whether it will be scrapped or recycled for another company.

When my boys talk about trains with my husband, they speak another language – the language of acronyms. This becomes even more pronounced in the group text they use on a trainspotting expedition. They say things like “Look at Gillingham EMUD on RTT” and “Saw a 66 with oil tankers and a 357 on C2C”. They have memorised an astonishing number of facts from Rolling Stock Review, the annual glossy update on all UK trains currently running. Valentine has a map of the entire UK railway network on his bedroom wall.

A typical trainspotting trip involves meticulous planning. School holidays are best because you get more trains running in the week than at weekends. They consult the Realtime Trains website to see if anything rare is coming through and decide which stations to visit and when. Once aboard the train, Solomon records the acceleration and gives a detailed running commentary. Both boys film their favourite trains and upload them on to their YouTube channels. Valentine admits he stopped filming once because he was so excited – he was going to shout and was too embarrassed to have that on the video. He says a trip to Leeds station transformed him from someone who liked trains into a railfan.

For Valentine, it’s not just about the machinery of trains, it’s the memories associated with them. His current favourite train is the 373, the original Eurostar. For my 50th birthday, we all went to Paris on one. They’re a rare sight now they’ve mostly been replaced by the 374 and that makes them more special. “Knowledge of Eurostars acquired since gives me greater appreciation of the trip to Paris in the past,” says Valentine. Trainspotting is a mixture of nostalgia and knowledge.

Living in a house of railfans, the railway had to infiltrate my writing at some stage. My new book, The Circle Breakers, the third of a tetralogy, is about time travel. A scene on a steam train from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads in 1844, introduces a character called The Trainspotter. In 1844, Bristol time was 10 minutes behind London. It wasn’t until the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act in 1880 that it was standardised across Britain. The railways forced us to harmonise time – that fascinates me and my family. Trains are our shared and multifaceted passion, a timeless source of pleasure.

The Circle Breakers by Patience Agbabi, published by Canongate, is out now at £7.99

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