CONFESSIONS OF A TRAIN-SPOTTER.

16 Apr

OK, I admit it – I was a trainspotter! Yes, I was that “anorak”! Today the humble anorak is a source of amusement, even derision, supposedly symbolising sad people who hang around train stations recording numbers. However, when I wore one in the early 60’s, it was a practical and affortable garment for those of us who didn’t have a lot of money, and very adaptable too. It kept me warm and dry on wintry football terraces and draughty stations while  waiting for trains. Later it stood in for the more expensive parka when I was trying to be a Mod on my dad’s old Lambretta, and even served me during my “All You Need Is Love” phase through the ingenious rouse of attaching Hippie bells to its toggles! But it is with trainspotting that it was ( and is) most closely associated, and I am proud to confess that for a period in my early adolescence, I was an ardent spotter.

I might moan about getting old now, but I have to admit that I was born at a pretty fortuitous time. I missed the horrors of the war by just 4 years, belonged to the first generation to enjoy the considerable benefits of the National Health Service, was there at the birth of Rock ‘n Roll and was a young teen when The Beatles and Stones exploded on to the scene. I am a member of the much envied and criticised ” Baby- Boomer” generation, as if we can help when we were born. Unbelievably I was also lucky enough to be there at the start of the nationalised British Railways and was around to witness the final, spectacular hurrah of steam locomotion. By the time I was 18, steam had disappeared from our rails forever, but before that I was there — on the stations, in the sheds, on the bridges, experiencing it’s final, unforgettable flourish. After that it gave way to diesels and electrics — quieter, quicker, cleaner, safer — but infinitely more boring.

It is 1962 and I am about 12 or 13. It is early evening and school has finished for the day. I’m sitting on a high footbridge which straddles the main LMS railway line near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I am with a few of my mates. We are all armed with pens and notebooks. We also clutch our trainspotters’ Bibles — the Ian Allen Combined Volume, which lists the number, name and technical details of every locomotive in the land. We called it a ten and sixer because it cost the princely sum of 10 shillings and six pence, a lot of money for schoolboys in 1962. Suddenly 2 signals on the nearby gantry clatter into the up-position. An important passenger train is due. It will be the Thames-Clyde Express from St Pancras. Stuck in a dead-end East Midlands town, we thought of London and Glasgow as impossibly remote and romantic destinations. The train arrives and stops at the station down the line. Passengers disembark and board in a flurry of greetings and farewells. Then a shrill whistle sounds, followed by the slow chug chug of the locomotive as it hauls its heavy load away from the platform. The sky fills with clouds of smoke pothering from the chimney. As the train picks up speed and nears our bridge, it is like an elemental force — noisy, dirty, powerful, a spectacular mechanical monster. It pounds our senses; we see it, smell it and hear it’s deafening roar. Maybe the Victorians should have called it the Iron Dragon rather than the Iron Horse. We narrow our eyes to focus in on the number and name. Will it be a “cop”? ( first time seen.) The noise reaches a resounding crescendo, then the whole bridge erupts into an inferno of smoke and steam as the train rushes beneath us. The passenger coaches clatter quickly and rhythmically over the rails and points. We are engulfed by the sound and the smell and are momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer thrill of it all. Then the sound fades, the steam dissapates and the train shrinks into the distance, getting smaller and smaller until it disappears altogether on its journey to places unknown to us. All is quiet on the bridge now except for the residual ringing in our ears.

That’s train-spotting!  It’s much more than merely ticking off numbers. It could be an all-consuming experience. In the days of steam it was a passionate and theatrical event, a brief escape from the comparative monotony of everyday existance.

I have deliberately over-written that section to try to get across the drama and spectacle that train-spotting in the steam age represented for young lads who had yet to discover girls. We couldn’t afford to travel much ourselves. We felt trapped in a boring, back-water town. We had yet to discover pop music and couldn’t afford the records anyway. So train-spotting was our escape. It was a valuable way of meeting and socialising with others. We could vicariously travel to all the places that the trains were going to. We journeyed in our imaginations and the seeds of future wanderlust were sown.

I had a head-start over my fellow train enthusiasts because my father, Maurice, actually worked on the railways. After delivering repaired shoes on a bike with a basket, he worked in a freezing factory making light bulbs ( 13 colds in 13 months!). He was then relieved and delighted to be taken on by British Rail as an engine cleaner at the tender age of 15. ( he had left school at just 13.) He progressed on to being a stoker or fireman, a tough, dirty but important job which he did for 17 years. Finally at the age of 35 he became a fully-fledged engine driver — which used to be every schoolboy’s dream before they switched to wanting to be Astronauts. Dad’s work was very hard with long hours and unsociable shifts but it was a career for life on the newly nationalised “Peoples’ Railway.”

When I was little, dad sometimes took me down to the shed where he worked and I saw the huge locomotives arranged in a circle around a giant turntable. It was like the one in the National Rail Museum in York except much dirtier and smellier. The locos were covered in layers of grease and grime and dripping with oil. Men worked on them constantly — cleaning, lubricating, checking, repairing. Steam locomotives were high maintenance and soaked up a lot of man hours. Dad would lift me into a cab — the Holy grail for every trainspotter, and I would stand on the foot-plate, mesmerised by the complex array of: knobs, levers and gauges and pretending to be the driver. My father mainly worked on unglamorous good trains, taking long loads of coal trucks from the pits to the power-stations. However, he occasionally drove passenger trains, especially holiday specials to places like Blackpool. These were very popular once holidays with pay came in and before the inexorable rise of the private motor car.

So railways were in my blood, so to speak. My family travelled on them at least 3 times a year, taking advantage of dad’s free passes, one of the few perks of the job. We travelled to a different seaside resort every summer and also went to Blackpool in the autumn to catch the Illuminations.( a family tradition.) We annually visited friends in Liverpool, where we took the ferry ‘cross the Mersey before Gerry and the Pacemakers immortalised it. All this was done on exciting steam trains, puffing and snorting their way across the land.

Steam trains were relics from a bygone era. They were invented in pre-Victorian times and had been going for over 150 years by the time I was born in 1949. To all intents and purposes, their job was done by the end of the Second World War. They had served the country well and now it was time for them to gracefully retire. The day of the diesel had arrived. On the continent, in France, Germany and Italy, the war-wrecked railways were rebuilt on the basis of modern electrification. However, in Britain the railways had not been destroyed outright and it was possible to patch them up and keep them running with steam. At the time ( late 40’s) coal was plentiful and cheap whereas oil for diesels was expensive and would have to be imported. This was before the discovery of North Sea oil. Also, diesel locomotives were at first unreliable and electrification was deemed too expensive by the post-war Labour government, which has higher priorities such as: bringing in the National Health Service, housing bombed out families and rebuilding the shattered steel industry. Thus, steam defied and out-lived its sell-by date and 2500 new locomotives were built between 1948  and 1960. It was a miracle for history buffs and railway enthusiasts alike — a rare example of the PAST living on into the FUTURE. The great variety of locomotives ranging from small, fussy tank engines to majestic, mainline giants, made for an endlessly fascinating spectacle. The drama and romance even attracted the film industry, which immortalised the steam trains running through Carnforth station in David Lean’s classic: “Brief Encounter.” This in turn had powerful echoes of the unforgettable, steam-drenched final drama of Leo Tolstoy’s great novel: “Anna Karenina”, a century earlier.

All the history, spectacle and glamour of steam travel created a powerful and magnetic spell that held sway over thousands of enthusiasts ( and still does.) As I got older, I travelled further afield to spot locomotives from different regions. I went to London to see Southern Region trains at Waterloo and the Western Region at Paddington. We went to Tamworth, Crewe and Carlisle for the West Coast Mainline. Best of all, my mates and I would go to Retford and Doncaster to see the spectacular Kings Cross to Edinburgh expresses on the east coast mainline ( the old LNER), including the legendary “Flying Scotsman.” They were pulled by huge, immensely powerful “Pacific” locomotives — the A1’s, A2’s and A3’s. The undoubted highlights however were the “iconic” A4 Pacifics, designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, looking like sleek rockets in their resplendent stream-lined, aero-dynamic casing. We nicknamed them the “Streaks” because they went so fast. The most famous “streak” of all was The Mallard, 6022, holder of the World speed record for a steam locomotive. In 1938 it reached a top speed of 126 mph, to smash the record of 124.5 held by a German loco since 1936. Mallard’s record remains unbroken.

The trainspotting craze took such a hold over us that we started to take risks and even flirt with danger. We risked arrest and prosecution by sneaking into railway sheds, leaping over the lines and dodging amongst the locos, to scribble down as many numbers as possible before being spotted and chucked out. Once I even scaled a high wall under cover of darkness to gain access to the engines in York’s prized sheds. We darted between the resting giants until a searchlight suddenly picked us out and a loud voice over the tannoy ordered us out. It was like a scene from Dr No! ( you know — the bit when James Bond and his companions are discovered to be on the sinister Doctor’s secret island and are caught in dazzling spotlights.) Alright, I exaggerate, but I you know what I’m getting at.

Steam locomotives continued to be built up to 1960, but as coal became more and more expensive, the rail system began to lose a lot of money. People and freight then started to desert the railways for the roads, including the newly built motorways. The days of steam were now increasingly numbered. A modernisation plan in the mid 1950’s recommended diesels and electrics. The last loco to be constructed was the evocatively named “Evening Star”. The launch ceremony at the famous Swindon works established by Brunel a century before, was a sombre and serious affair. Everyone present knew it was the end of an era.

One of the final nails in the coffin of steam was hammered in by the infamous Beeching cuts in the early 60’s. The railways were now to be regarded as a profit seeking ( or loss avoiding) industry rather than a public service. ( An early example of Thatcherism) Unprofitable branch lines were closed en masse, leaving remote, rural communities even more isolated. Suddenly, lots of locomotives were surplus to requirements and there was an unseemly headlong rush to scrap steam. Sidings up and down the country started to pile up with redundant steam locomotives that had literally reached “the end of the line.” These final resting places were like the graveyards of steam. In one year, 500 locomotives were scrapped without sentiment. Even Evening Star only lasted until 1965, although after its withdrawel it was preserved rather than destroyed. It wasn’t just the locos. All the coking plants, watering points, firemen and many of the smaller stations suddenly became redundant. My dad had to re-train to learn how to drive the new diesels. Actually he didn’t view the end of steam through misty eyes like me. When I recently asked him what he felt about the end of steam locomotives, his reply was : ” they couldn’t get rid of them quick enough.” He told me that the steam locos he drove were getting increasingly unreliable and were always breaking down. The last steam pulled passenger train ran from Liverpool to Manchester and on to Carlisle in August, 1968.

Except for a select band of engines to be preserved for posterity, most steam locomotives now lay corroding in scrapyards, waiting to be dismantled. To me, ( if not my dad) it was a sad and pathetic sight. My friends and I visited line after line of pitiful, rusting hulks in our local sidings. Even my younger sister, Glenys, got caught up with the emotion and accompanied me down to the shed to catch a last glimpse of a vanishing age. We climbed into the silent, empty cabs. A sad, eerie atmosphere pervaded as we wandered amongst the ghosts of this poignant graveyard. Our voices were hushed as if we were attending a funeral.

My trainspotting days faded with the steam. Other interests and pursuits crowded in and took over my life. However, my love of steam trains has never completely died. Thanks to the many Heritage Railways which rescued and restored numerous locomotives, I can still go back and relive the sights, sounds and smells of the last glorious days of steam. The fabulous North York Moors Railway is nearby and only last week I went on a short steam train ride at Beamish Museum, County Durham with my daughter Joanna and grand-daughters Esme and Nina. I still cling on to my prized Ian Allen’s “ten and sixer”, but I regret to report that the anorak is long gone!

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