Most people who are into trains (and yes, they are mainly men) are so inclined because either a/. They were fortunate enough to have grown up in the age of steam; b/. A member of their immediate family worked in the railways; or c/. They lived next to the railway line or used to commute to work/school regularly by train. In my case none of those apply. I've never lived particularly close to the railway, none of my immediate family have ever worked for BR or its successors and trips by train as a kid were more the exception than the norm. Perhaps it is because of the rarity that trains became so interesting to me.
Btw, I would like to say before I go any further that I curse anyone who uses that unfortunate moniker 'trainspotter.' To me it evokes an image of a friendless, bespectacled and spotty youth or an overweight middle-aged saddo, who spend all their free time standing at the ends of windswept and rain-lashed platforms noting down train numbers. That is certainly not what its about for me. After all what's the point of collecting train numbers? Once you've got them all, what do you do then? Its rather a redundant exercise in my opinion especially as there are any number of web sites, books or magazines, where you can get all that information anyway.
So how did it all start?
Can't remember exactly although I do remember my first 'trainspotters' book, which I got in the early eighties either as a birthday or Christmas present. It was a rather slim affair, with pictures and brief texts on all the different types of loco and multiple unit that could be seen on the railway network in Britain. It was probably around the same time that I got my first train set - a completely inauthentic Hornby representation of a GWR branch loco and 2 carriages. I loved that train set though, especially when my dad made a proper layout for me on a baseboard. It was many hours of fun driving my little loco and its carriages and wagons around an oval of track... Ah, those were the days!
My dad had an awesome model rail layout in the loft - I think it was there because it was the only part of the house that my mum wouldn't dare enter and I don't blame her, the access was directly over the stairs, so a terrifying drop if you misplaced your step on the ladder getting up there! Dad was always fantastic at making things and the buildings and attention to detail in his layout was so much more impressive than just model trains.
As a kid I was also a member of the RailRiders club. It was specifically aimed at children up to about 15 or 16 as a way of getting them interested in railways. I had this massive wall chart on my bedroom wall and the idea was you had to collect stickers from various museums, preserved railways and other attractions reached by rail from around the country. I never did very well with populating my wall chart as days out by train were very few and far between and normally to unimaginative places like Bognor, Southampton or Winchester.
One trip I do remember is my dad taking me and a mate from school to Swindon. We visited the Great Western Railway museum before spending a few hours on Swindon station watching the trains go by. I remember being fascinated watching the unloading of a mail train, something that you'd be very lucky to see on the rail network today.
A couple of times we made the trip to London by train and it is difficult to put into words as an adult just how awe inspiring it was to be on the concourse of Waterloo station under that quite magnificent train shed. Most of all what caught my attention was the noisy 'clackety-clack' of the destination boards as they scrolled down details of the next departures. Even now when I am at Waterloo, I stop and catch my breath. Next time, you're there, just take a few moments to drink in the impressiveness of the building around you, it is quite an amazing place.
My interest in railways is deeper than just watching trains, its about the history of railways, how they shaped Britain and the communities that grew up around the railways. It is a very rich source of social history. Also, unashamedly I just love old steam engines and traveling on preserved and heritage lines such as the Swanage Railways, Severn Valley Railway and Mid-Hants Railways. Its a chance to transport yourself back in time and enjoy the smell and sight of steam, which is endlessly enchanting.
Perhaps most of all and I feel silly saying this, a feeling of nostalgia and romance to it all. Hah! Much of the latter has sadly gone.
The railways are still interesting. I feel very fortunate for example to have seen some of the last Pendolino's being built for Virgin Trains, visited works and depots in the local area and having some insight into how the modern railway is operated. It is endlessly complex and fascinating even if some is beyond my understanding.
Its not an interest that I shout about although if anyone asks and they're willing to listen, I could bore them for hours! Most people will probably think it a strange pursuit and I doubt it will ever shrug off that association with anoraks. I am not bothered, it gives me a lot of pleasure and that is all that is important to me.