The man who invented trainspotting: It has become a dirty word, but why?

A COMPUTER search shows 203 references to the word 'trainspotter' in the national press over the past 12 months, 179 of them pejorative. In the past week there has been the line from the failed musical Eurovision: fans of the song contest are 'like train-spotters, only camper'. A piece in Today on wigs warned of looking like a 'trainspotter with a dead tarantula on his napper'. In the Independent Magazine a week ago, the Weasel column wondered why Channel 4 'stuck so doggedly to replicating Mr Gerry Adams's desperately dull, train- spotter tones.'

A word which once had a specific meaning has been transformed into a general term of abuse. It is, for both lovers of exactitude as well as trains, all very confusing. For example, a recent and well-received novel, Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, contains no mention of trains and turns out to be about drugs and social decay on a Scottish housing estate. It is also safe to assume that Mr Adams does not in fact spend his spare time collecting locomotive numbers from the platforms of Belfast Central.

Trainspotting, in its new and wider sense, seems to mean dull, obsessive, possibly anal-retentive, scruffy (the word anorak is never far away), but harmless. A London Evening Standard guide to hip new words defined 'dweeb' as 'awkward male - probably a trainspotter'.

The paradox here is that there are fewer trains and trainspotters in Britain now than at any time in the past 50 years, and that trainspotters are the ultimate in innocuity. (Most of them, anyway: Michael Sams was a trainspotter before being given life sentences for the murder of Julie Dart and kidnap of Stephanie Slater.)

And yet they attract such hate] I went to see Ian Allan, the man who invented both the original phenomenon and the word, to see if he could shed light on the mystery. Trainspotting began in 1942 when Mr Allan was a 19-year-old trainee in the public-relations office of the Southern Railway at Waterloo. Tired of replying to letters from railway enthusiasts demanding details of locomotives, he suggested that the office produce a simple booklet listing their vital statistics. His boss was not interested, so Mr Allan decided to do it himself.

The ABC of Southern Locomotives was a simple pocket- sized index of engine numbers and types. At a shilling each, 2,000 copies sold out immediately. ABC guides to other railway companies soon followed.

Locospotting - Mr Allan's preferred phrase - was identified as a phenomenon in 1944, when a group of adolescent boys were arrested on the tracks at Tamworth, the nearest station on the west coast main line to Birmingham. Partly in order to teach safety to young spotters, Mr Allan started the Loco- spotters Club.

By the late Forties it had a quarter of a million members. In the Fifties and Sixties a million ABC guides, listing 20,000 locomotives, were being sold every year. The police had to be called in on holidays to keep spotters in order at such key stations as Willesden, Clapham Junction and Tamworth.

All of this made Mr Allan rather rich. Today he is chairman of the Ian Allan Group, which employs 350 people in enterprises ranging from transport publishing to hotels and fertiliser supplies. Turnover last year was pounds 30m. But the train- spotters, the foundation of this empire, have all but gone - Ian Allan thinks perhaps only 10,000 dedicated ones remain. The problem lies chiefly with the death of the locomotive. The 'units' that British Rail now deploys lack romance, and many of yesterday's spotters are now mature and studious railway historians.

Mr Allan has no idea why his creations attract such loathing. 'I suppose people just dislike people who are different . . . it seems to be because they wear berets and haversacks and dirty mackintoshes and cover them with badges.' Mr Allan likes trains, he insists, but is not a 'number taker'. Or a 'rivet counter'. Does he find trainspotters to be interesting people? 'Ummm . . . Pass.'

Nor could Mr Allan quite explain the secret attractions of number-taking. I turned elsewhere. The trainspotting editor of Viz magazine, Chris Donald (who owns three former railway stations) said: 'In some ways you can get as much from a train as you can from a woman.' He is married.

And so trainspotters remain safe to laugh at. Exclusively male, they are, perhaps, the last minority group that can be reviled without fear of opprobrium. But perhaps not for much longer. The trainspotter, it was recently revealed, may be psychiatrically challenged. Dr Uta Frith of the Medical Research Council's Cognitive Development Unit, has said that trainspotters and other obsessive collectors of trivia, may be suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

The syndrome, identified by a Viennese doctor shortly after the Second World War, is characterised by social ineptness, an over-literal and pedantic approach to language, a lack of sense of irony or humour and obsessively pursued hobbies - finding, as it were, safety in numbers.

Trainspotters, of course, have reacted badly to this suggestion. Most of all they dislike the accusation of a lack of sense of humour. One spotter recently gave an example to rebut the claim. A locomotive called Thor pulled up at a northern station. By the time it left, spotters had inscribed a new name in the grime - 'Thora Hird'.

Mr Allan defends the people who made him rich. 'The bulk of them are perfectly normal people, chartered accountants, engineers. It goes right down the scale to a few who are decidedly odd.' He avoids the latter. 'I usually go incognito to railway meetings. If I meet them and they want to discuss the relative merits of one class of loco or the other - I just say 'Can't we talk about something else?' '

(Photographs omitted)

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album