Chuffer nuts in the fast track

Trainspotting has moved into the video age - and it's nothing to do with drugs. By Julia Stuart
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The Independent Culture
WHY UNWIND with a glass of wine and your favourite CD, when you could watch a video of your journey to work?

Ken Roberts, from Kent, hopes the idea will catch on. He has worked on Britain's railways for 22 years, and is so passionate about trains that he has just released a video of a train journey from Maidstone West to London Bridge, filmed from the driver's cab.

For train enthusiasts, the view is nothing short of riveting. If you need proof, the 52-year-old has already sold 200 videos of a journey from Reading to Leamington Spa, and another 200 of the Gatwick Express route.

``You can see a lot more of the railway from the driver's cab than from your seat,'' enthuses Roberts. ``There's the stations, signals, bridges, tunnels, and you can see the other trains coming towards you, and going past you.''

Passionate about trains since he was a boy, Roberts left school at 15 to become a railway porter and rose to the rank of area supervisor for Connex South East. He set up his own company, Videolines, 10 years ago, and has since made around 20 train-related films.

As well as producing the films, Roberts writes the video scripts. A typical narrative runs as follows: ``As we pass over the main lines out of Waterloo, and head towards Clapham Junction, the south-western division's mainlines to Weymouth and Exeter are situated to middle right, while the suburban Windsor lines to Ascot etcetera are sited to the far right.''

Paul "Chuffer Nut" Swann, a 23-year-old from Matfield, is his cameraman. He also owns a railway video production company, Agenda. A former "spotter", he went on to photograph trains, and then started recording their sounds. At 16, he embraced video production.

"It does put girls off," he admits. "But I'm not that fussed about having a relationship."

Trainspotters love their videos. Nigel McBay of Blandford, Dorset, has a number of them, and says that they save him from travelling with his head stuck out the window.

"Watching it from a seat on the train doesn't give you the same flavour of the action as you get from the driver's cab," says the 45-year-old haulage company manager. "Watching the driver's view, in your own armchair, is relaxing, as well as interesting".

Ken Roberts is keen that his film should also appeal to a broader audience.

"We hope commuters will buy it to understand the effort that goes in to trying to get a train to run on time," he explains. "Communication can break down on occasions, but most of the time, everybody puts in a lot of effort." Signalling quirks are explained in detail on the video. "It will give commuters a better understanding of why they may be delayed," he explains.

The 106-minute video of the journey from Kent to London is priced at pounds 15.95 - so, will the commuters who use the line every day be buying it?

"It really wouldn't interest me at all," says business manager Shaun Mattingley, 34, from Tunbridge Wells, Kent. "I don't want to see the signals. I just want to get to wherever I'm going - and fast."

James Jesty, a 28-year-old from Knutfield, works for a car rental firm. He doesn't want to be reminded of his persistently delayed journeys. Last November, he was one and a half hours late arriving at work on three consecutive days, as a result of delays and cancellations on the line. Needless to say, he won't be buying the video.

Neither will 17-year-old student Naomi Difabio. "I don't know of anyone who would want to watch a video of a railway," she says.

I ask Roberts to describe the most exciting bits of the video. "There's a section when we passed a double yellow signal - an advanced warning," he says, pausing for dramatic effect.

"The driver has to reduce speed, because the next signal could be showing a single yellow light. He then has to slow down even more because the next signal could be showing a red light... and then he would have to stop!"

Roberts is already planning their next film, covering such topical issues as leaves on the lines and the wrong kind of snow.

I had just one final question. Film producer or anorak?

He bristles. "I did once have a donkey jacket, but that was 30 years ago."

To order a copy of the video, call 01892 833368