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'Train-Spotters' Try to Keep Media From Railroading Their Hobby : Britain: One bristles at the term, preferring 'railway enthusiasts.' 'It's OK to sit by a river in the rain or to hit balls in holes you can't see,' he says. 'But if you are a rail enthusiast, you are perceived as a head case.'


LONDON — The rumble of a distant train stops all conversation.

Tape recorders, binoculars, cameras and note pads at the ready, men carefully document the presence of locomotive No. 47803 pulling a load of gravel as it passes by.

"That's 'the yellow submarine.' She was painted in Stratford," says Douglas David Gibson, wiping his brow and returning his two cameras to his briefcase.

Gibson, 56, and the others perched on Platform 4 of the Acton Mainline Station, just west of busy Paddington terminal, are devotees of train-spotting, a British pastime that involves seeing and noting everything that runs on British Rail's 11,000 miles of track. There are about 2,000 locomotives, 11,000 passenger cars ("carriages" to the British), and 16,000 freight cars.

Decades ago, train-spotting was a popular hobby for men and boys transfixed by the gleaming, glamorous steam engines. Now, those who practice it have an image problem and are wary of ridicule.

Murray Brown, editor of Rail Magazine, bristles at the term "train-spotter." He prefers "railway enthusiasts," and estimates them to number about 250,000.

"It's a very much derided hobby," Brown said. "It's OK to sit by a river in the rain or to hit balls in holes you can't see. But if you are a rail enthusiast, you are perceived as a head case and the media tends to latch onto this dreadful name, 'train-spotter.' "

Train-spotters are a familiar sight to British Rail passengers, particularly at such busy junctions as Crewe, Carlisle, Clapham in south London and New Street station in Birmingham.

A one-man play, "Anorak of Fire," ran for five months in London and is now a cult hit on a six-month tour. It portrays the spotter as a mind on a single track:

"It is true, though, that spotting is a destroyer of relationships," the character says. "It is hard to spot and to have what they call a relationship--you know, a girlfriend. Spotting is a closed world. Not very attractive to women. . . . There are some women spotters, but it's hard for them to both spot and bring up a family, so mothers don't seem to encourage it in their daughters."

To much of the wider world, the train-spotter is a nerd.

He is scruffily dressed, with black-rimmed glasses that may be held together with tape, wearing a parka or Windbreaker. He carries a flask of tea and a notebook, camera, video or tape recorder, or all of the above.

"It's not portrayed as hip and trendy," said Martin Jenkins, 21, an engineering student who photographs trains during vacations. "The stigma is daft. Now, you go into a school and you won't find one boy who is willing to admit they are rail enthusiasts."

Women are either uninterested in train-spotting or not encouraged to take it up.

"There are one or two--Allison, Pauline, they live up in the Midlands. They are rather strange," said Geoffrey Johnson, a railway enthusiast for four decades, who had just returned from riding Swiss trains on vacation.

"There are no facilities for ladies," he said. "It used to be a refuge for men who were so disposed. But we met one last year who went with her husband to look at and ride on trains."

Brown said rail enthusiasts are interested in more than "just noting numbers." Booklets filled with pages of train numbers to be checked off by spotters are sometimes given away with railway magazines.

Enthusiasm for railways "covers a whole magnitude of things," Brown said. "Many people like 'track bashing,' traveling over every rail line. Now, how do you travel on a freight line? That's where it becomes interesting."

Mike Stunt, 52, bought a house that has a view of the tracks from the living room. He doesn't see any image problem.

"Somewhere else, you'd be considered eccentric for sitting on a platform writing down numbers and daft things like that," he said, replacing his tape recorder in his top pocket after noting the car numbers of a fast-moving passenger train. He logs the numbers into his computer at the end of the day.

David Weeks, a clinical psychologist in Edinburgh, Scotland, has studied eccentric English behavior including train-spotting, which he describes as "a happy obsessive preoccupation."

"For some, trains become so exclusive it clouds out other thoughts in their minds," he said. "It even goes to lengths where you've got those who work for British Rail and train-spot on days off."

Gibson is one such person. He works the night shift as a signalman, goes home to sleep for a couple of hours, then grabs his briefcase and is back at the rails as a train-spotter by day.

He is part of a hard-core group of four or five who alternately stake out the Acton Mainline for the diesel locomotives and Wandsworth Road, where the electrics run.

When the traffic lags, Gibson aims his binoculars skyward.

"It's an American," he tells comrades sitting in the shade of steps leading down to Platform 4. Before Gibson can finish relaying the plane's numerical information, Eric Searle interrupts with news of train movement at the depot down the line.

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