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By Russell Hollowood on

Trainspotting – an executive pastime?

Does the stereotypical image of a trainspotter stand up to scrutiny?

In many quarters, trainspotting is regarded as a byword for socially awkward people with personal problems.  So how is it that people of power could be associated with this most niche of railway enthusiasms?

The answer lies in the context of the activity. From the late 1970’s, UK governments began a drive to control the spending of local authorities. The result was a tendency to centralise control of local activities from the corridors of Whitehall. The result was that local officials, business leaders and people who wanted to make things happen, needed to travel to London and make their case in the corridors of power.

Its 1977 and the HST is about to become the executive transport of choice. (1978-9726) Credit © NRM/Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.
Its 1977 and the HST is about to become the executive transport of choice. (1978-9726) Credit © NRM/Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Library — All rights reserved.

The High Speed Train was transforming the UK intercity network and making day trips to London an easy reality from almost every provincial city in the UK. Suddenly the public officials of Bristol, Sheffield and Newcastle were a day trip away from the Whitehall mandarins and the Westminster politicians, who controlled the purse strings. Intercity had made the going easy.

Now once you had looked over your meeting papers and rehearsed your points, you become bored. Laptops don’t exist and mobile phones aren’t very mobile, so what does a board executive do now?

Vodafone transportable mobile phone, 1985.( 1997-1038) Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.
Vodafone transportable mobile phone, 1985.( 1997-1038) Credit © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library — All rights reserved.

Well, when I was working for a local authority in the period concerned, several ‘senior’ executives confessed to having spotting books and whiling away the time on those long intercity journeys by spotting trains. You could call it trainspotting as a mental pastime, rather than as an active pursuit.

Could it be that today’s ‘always available’ technology has consigned this particular variant of the pastime to history?

You can discover more by attending my 15 minute talk on the existence of executive trainspotters in the UK and Japan, on Thursday 20 November at 2pm, by the HST nose cone, in Great Hall.

In the meantime, if you know an executive spotter story then please let me know below.

3 comments on “Trainspotting – an executive pastime?

  1. My father Martin Bradley, a National Coal Board executive, used to write down the numbers of locos seen on his business trips around England in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He generally used the margins of his newspaper for the purpose. These numbers were for my interest, as I was then an avid teenaged spotter (of course I was horribly envious). But the exercise also called back memories his own teenaged spotting days, in and around Birmingham in the 1940s.

    In 2014, father and son can therefore both agree that modern trains are much less interesting than they used to be.

  2. I was a trainspotter- in steam days in the 50’s-but also enjoyed fishing and done both at the same time by fishing in the canal close to the railway in Somerset ,,,, but now 60 years later I am a driver on steam on the West Somerset Railway and I find it amazing the number of people who are quite happy to admit to the one time ‘dodgy’ hobby of trainspotting ,both steam or diesel in this more acceptable preservation era.

  3. The Inter City 125 revolutionised rail travel on the East Coast Main Line. An hour was taken off journey times from Newcastle to London, the trains were fully air conditioned( making travel in summer far pleasanter), the catering was vastly better and the trains had vandal proof windows. You can see why these trains became so popular and are still used today on long distance diesel services.

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