For a long time the railway shunted enthusiasts like myself into the sidings, but the revival of the Rail Riders Club shows that times have changed

 
Railway accessory and clothing supplier Bufferbeam, obtained Trademark protection on all of the Rail Riders’ logos

 

Back in 1993, I was interviewed for the last ever British Rail graduate training scheme. I flunked it, just as I messed up the London Underground application process. During both processes, I got the tip off that the railway wasn’t looking for those with an interest in the industry; to be an enthusiast was scorned upon. In fact, criminal convictions or a fascination with fast cars would probably have been more welcome than applications from social misfits with a lifelong passion for the industry such as I. I didn’t listen to the pre-match advice and went big time in both interviews about my love of the railway, which I gather, was an almighty turn-off.

Of course, being a trainspotter and avid photographer of trains, as well as a “track basher” probably wasn’t the reason I didn’t make the cut. Sporting an over-sized suit, talking too loudly in the interview, not knowing when to shut up and a flat-top early-1990s Vanilla Ice haircut, more likely did it for me. However, the aversion to those who actually cared for the railway was fairly typical of the period and it has taken around 15 years, in my view, for this affliction to dissipate.

The transient nature of employers, through franchise ownership or with companies changing hands due to sales, or even the ever-revolving door in terms of leadership, have caused many folk to talk about how, whatever happens in the background, they feel they are employed by “the railway”. It is this loyalty to “the railway” that inspires and excites employees most – far more so than the share price of their owning group, or their franchise bid to achieve world domination or a particular boss who is only interested in furthering his or her own career.

An allegiance towards ‘the railway’ is, to some extent, the kind of mindset that irritates many CEOs, because it motivates and fosters loyalty amongst managers and their employees far more than the kind of condescending, brainwashing corporate piffle about Vision and Values that they and their clones churn out (if anything this turns people closer towards “the railway” than their transient paymaster).

It was with interest, therefore, that I stumbled across the news that after 30 years the Rail Riders Club is being revived. The renaissance is being overseen by railway accessory and clothing supplier Bufferbeam, who obtained Trademark protection on all of the Rail Riders’ logos to ensure it could be brought back to life. Many will recall that this was a club set up by British Rail to encourage young people to travel by train as a leisure pursuit at a time when off peak travel was in decline. It was aimed predominantly at so-called weirdos like me who counted railways as a hobby, and a book of 50p discount vouchers on travel was issued in return for membership. There were also goodies as well – stickers, badges and a newsletter.

At its peak, 80,000 members flocked to Rail Riders and when I spoke to the brains behind its resuscitation, Simon Buxton, last week, he explained that the Year 1 membership target is initially a more modest 2,000.

At its peak, 80,000 members flocked to Rail Riders and when I spoke to the brains behind its resuscitation, Simon Buxton, last week, he explained that the Year 1 membership target is initially a more modest 2,000. They’ve already got on board a number of heritage railways, model railway shops, enthusiasts simulation companies, book publishers and rail tour groups to offer discounts to members – and the dream would be to get a train operating company to provide support.

Whilst the initial objective is to provide a body that serves the needs of enthusiasts, it is, primarily to spark an interest among those yet to be entranced, rather than you and I, or Simon, who was also once a guard on the East Coast.

Another objective is to grow patronage on the railway, not just on heritage operations but also the mainline network. That’s where the support of the industry would be mutually beneficial. A further goal is to attract volunteers to help out at many of the railway related groups, preserved railways and other good causes that support the sector as a whole.

The club is being revived at a time when those with an interest in rail as a leisure pursuit has probably declined, just as many of those hobbies of yesteryear have dwindled with the onset of home entertainment and the internet. You see far fewer trainspotters on platform ends than a couple of decades ago.

Depot open days with their huge crowds (there were 21,000 at Ilford on FA Cup Final Day in 1989) are largely distant memories now, and rail enthusiast emporiums have closed in tandem with the decline in High Streets. Except for its outlet in Waterloo, Ian Allen’s stores have all now shut down.

Being a rail enthusiast was never easy. We were (and are) always regarded as misfits, deviants, loners and losers. In today’s narcissistic, self-obsessed, “me, me, me” generation with its selfies and fixation with having the perfect appearance and personal brand, standing in the pouring rain on a Saturday afternoon on the platform at the end of Birmingham New Street or breaking into Old Oak Common depot (as I regularly did to take photos of the turntable), is likely to be even more untrendy than ever.

We’ll struggle to get kids to trade in their games of Fortnite or Call of Duty for an 00 gauge Bachmann Class 450, but to sow the seeds of passion for the railway in a tiny percentage of the modern generation would be great.

Stimulating more interest is possible, after all, the UK, unlike any other nation I’ve come across, latent fascination for trains (and buses) is in its DNA – what other country has trainspotters? Such interest is an asset that should be cultivated by the industry and not discredited as it has been in the past by the likes of Network Rail, who used to try and shunt spotters off the stations. They are an asset, observing and often recording misdemeanours, including suspicious activity, which is particularly relevant in anti-terrorism activity.

Enthusiasts also provide a potential pool of talent from which rail companies can recruit at a time when there is a skills shortage. Talking to many of them, they appear to know more about the intricacies of a railway operation than many senior managers and have an inquisitiveness around ways to make improvements in terms of punctuality, reliability and at times of disruption as well as the customer service per se, that is sometimes unrivalled.

They are conversant with the nooks and crannies of stations more so than many station managers and also with their wide-ranging travel, have a view on the make-up of individual markets and revenue generation opportunities.

The challenge, of course, is that despite opinions towards rail buffs becoming less hostile in recent times, if you suggested to your average HR director that they actively target trainspotters as part of recruitment campaigns, it would probably fill them with horror, particularly as, admittedly, some of those trainspotters can be a bit eccentric, like me. In this era of rightly trying to achieve a more diverse workforce, the fact that most are ageing, white males won’t do much for the diversity targets.

I’d proffer that someone who genuinely has deep, emotional affinity and loyalty to a particular brand or industry will give more to the cause and feel the joy and pains of success and failure of that sector, more than someone who is ambivalent

Although I don’t have any research to back this up (and I suspect none has been undertaken), I’d proffer that someone who genuinely has deep, emotional affinity and loyalty to a particular brand or industry will give more to the cause and feel the joy and pains of success and failure of that sector, more than someone who is ambivalent. You’re not telling me that someone who adores cats is less likely to go the extra mile in their job at a Cat Rescue Centre than a colleague who just as easily could have worked in utilities, financial services or retail, had a better offer come up.

If anyone doubts the value of a love of the sector they work in, they should look at my Facebook account as I’m friends with a huge number of bus sector managing directors – one post after another shows them travelling to all parts of the UK on buses, just for the fun of it, at weekends, in evenings, on their holidays, with their families – taking in the network, experiencing the customer proposition, as volunteer helpers and drivers or raising awareness of their (sometimes perceived as unfashionable) industry. These are people who have an indescribable love for their sector and who have realised their dream of working to make it a better place.

Over the years, I’ve heard newcomers (generally those HR directors again, if I’m honest), turn up their noses and titter condescendingly at these folk and their passion for buses, yet it is the same folks who will be here fighting to maintain the sector’s survival, long after others have disappeared because a better job offer came up in a sexier industry.

I had one of those moments of realisation last month, during a busy working day, spotting a loco-hauled TransPennine service at York station. I paused from my boring emails, conference calls and meetings to chat to a trainspotter, who, himself, was giving lots of advice to a number of customers. He spoke informatively to me about the pathing of the train and also the onset of my own service to London. After taking a photo and excitingly posting it on Facebook, I picked up my laptop bag and sprinted down the platform to board my train. My heart was beating fast, I was overwhelmed by childlike excitement and it took me back over 40 years to racing down platform 4 at Orpington station with my first ever Locoshed spotter’s book to spot a Crompton.

Of course, all this self-indulgent, nostalgic rambling is probably of zero interest to readers. However,  I struggle to describe those feelings of joy that overcame me on the platform at York. It was the simplicity of it all, the pleasure of stopping my busy work schedule, of ceasing to worry about business or anything else for a few short minutes. I watched a beautiful but rare sight of a loco-hauled train get given the road and then, when the signal cleared, seeing a bright red, loco pulling inter-city carriages traverse a diamond crossing under a magnificent station roof and into the platform.

It was also the fact that that instinctive joy I felt when I saw the TransPennine train and the  urge to take a picture and post it on social media, and risk missing my train, was the kind of reaction I’d felt all those years ago. Best of all, it was reminding myself that I’d given up my career to work in an industry that was actually my hobby. Over 27 years on, I’d stuck two fingers up at those muppets on the interview panel on those graduate training schemes who felt that being an enthusiast and working on the railway was a bad thing.

The official re-launch of Rail Riders is planned for February and the website goes live in December, just in time for folk to purchase membership as a Christmas present for loved ones. Check out Rail Riders’ Facebook page or drop them an email on info@railriders.club. Let’s make gricing and track-bashing cool, once again.

VERDICT: A passion for the railway – as a hobby as much as a job – is an asset that the industry should recognise. For this reason, it’s great that Rail Riders is making a comeback and hopefully it can inspire future generations of rail enthusiasts just like it did for me and many others when we were kids

 
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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