Guide to Getting Started with Train Spotting
Train spotting is a popular hobby. Just like any other, it can be done in your spare time and doesn’t have to take over your life. It’s a fantastic lifestyle choice though, because it is one which enables you to travel to lots of different places and see the very best of Great Britain, or even the world if you choose to.
When we say “train spotting”, don’t feel limited to a book and pen, because many railway enthusiasts also spend their time photographing and videoing trains. Videos and photos can be shared online on personal portfolios such as YouTube or Flickr, or just developed and put into a personal collection or photo album. Some train spotters also have a seperate notebook and the intention of traveling behind as many classes of trains as possible, called “train bashing”.
There are many different types of train in the UK. Nowhere near all of them can be seen from your local railway station, and you’ll need to travel far and wide if you want to tick off / photograph / video all of the different classes of trains.
This handy guide that we have written will help you to get the most out of the hobby of train spotting.
Getting Started with Train Spotting
The first thing you need to decide upon is what you want to spot / phot (spotting whilst photographing) trains, wagons, or both. Trains fall into several different types – these are: multiple units (electric, diesel, hybrid); locomotives (diesel, electric, steam); and on-track plant. Wagons and coaches also come in lots of different kinds, vehicle carrying wagons, petroleum tankers, shipping container flats, Network Rail maintenance wagons are just a small handful of wagons that can often be found on the UK rail network today – if you know where to see them.
You also need to decide on what method of spotting you’re going to take. Are you simply going to write down numbers of trains in a notebook, or are you going to take photographs of the trains to save as physical evidence of your sightings? Whichever route you take, you’ll need to be prepared.
If you’re going down the route of ticking off as many different classes of trains, and their subclasses and or numbers, it goes without saying that a book containing a comphrehensive list of all of today’s trains and their coaching stock formations, numbers and construction details would come in very handy. We recommend Platform 5 publications. Platform 5 books are updated yearly and contain a list of every number of every train class in operation on the UK rail network. You can view the Platform 5 book range, and lots of other railway books at rail-books.co.uk
If you’re going down the route of railway photography, you’ll need a decent camera. When buying a camera, make sure that it works well at night time, as some rare railway workings often run at night. A camera with a good zoom range is also handy. If you’re going down the route of videography and recording videos, you’ll want a camera that is at least 1080p. 1080p is Full HD resolution, and is good enough quality to capture all the details. Video cameras don’t always work well in the dark, so a high end mobile phone such as the Google Pixel 3 might be a good choice if your primarily going for night videos.
How to be a train spotter
To be a train spotter, you need to know what you’re spotting. Trains are classified into types called “classes”. Trains usually have a number on the front of them, or at the side near the front. The last 3 digits of the number on the front will be the train’s number, whilst any numbers appearing before those last 3 digits, are the train’s class. For example a train which has 377442 on the front of it would be a class 377, and the train’s number is 377442. The number first succeeding the class number is the train’s sub class. Train classing information is detailed below in coloured guide.
The red digits are the train’s class. The example above is a class 377. The blue digit is the train’s sub class often written as being a class 377/4. It is class 377, number 377442.
The above example is a class 09 locomotive. It is sub class 09/0. It’s number is 019 (09019).
Classes 0 – 99 are diesel or electric locomotives.
Classes 100 – 299 are diesel multiple units
Classes 300 – 799 are electric multiple units
Classes 800 onwards are hybrid units.
Track machines are not classed the same as locomotives and multiple units. Track machines and on track plant numbers are preceeded by “DR”. You can see all track machine numbers on our on track plant identification guide from the main menu under enthusiast resources, which lists most track machines and their numbers. The numbering system given to locomotives and multiple units in today’s railways is called TOPS. Steam locomotives are not referred to by their TOPS numbers in the railway enthusiast community, but rather their pre-TOPS numbers because they are easier to tell apart. Northern Ireland trains do not use the same numbering system as the UK railway, nor do their timetables show on Rail Record live train times, so train spotting in Northern Ireland adds a bit of a challenge.
Different train operators have different classes of trains, so if you want to see every class of train, you’ll need to travel far and wide across the country.
One of the enjoyable things of trainspotting is liveries. Different train operating companies have their own liveries, some of which can be specially branded. Southern Railway’s class 313201 has been repainted into it’s original BR colours as a commemoration anniversary of its 20 years in service. Freight operating companies often paint their locomotives into their customer’s branding, for example 66783 has been painted into Biffa bins livery, Freightliner 66522 has been painted into a special Shanks group livery. Other locomotives are painted into special colours, such as 66789 (original British Rail large logo colours), 66720 (a children painted rainbow), 66746 Royal Scotsman livery, you just have to find them.
If you’re going to spot wagons, these are broken down in to 3 letter classes, not numerical classes. A lot of maintenance wagons are also nicknamed after sea animals. A comprehensive list of wagons and their fish names can be found on the LTSV website. Wagons are numbered, similarly to locomotives and multiple units.
UK Train Schedules and Timetables
Rail Record provides a list of most train services in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland). Live train times are available for most train services to help you when train spotting. Rail Record live train times gives you information about passenger, non passenger and freight train services, so it is a useful resource. Trains which run on the Great British railway network are allocated a 4 digit signalling ID, also referred to as a headcode. Headcodes are used to identify specific workings on the network.
Train schedules are either WTT, VAR, STP, VSTP, or CANX. WTT timetabled services are services which run regularly so a permanent entry is made in the working timetable. VAR services are variations of the WTT timetabled service, with timings or routing slightly altered to the requirements of other services. STP timetables are short term planned timetables, for movements such as diversions, short term freight services and engineering trains. VSTP schedules are very short term planned services, usually running within 48 hours of the timetable being made. CANX are cancelled trains.
Finding particular trains and locomotives (train allocations)
One of the hardest, but most rewarding elements of train spotting is finding a locomotive, multiple unit or piece of rolling stock that you’ve required for a long time. Perhaps there is one locomotive or multiple unit that just keeps avoiding you, the last one of the train series that you need to tick off…
Locomotive and train service allocations are a well guarded secret, because the internal train allocations systems aren’t publicly available. Rail Record live train times is testing a feature which enables train spotters to share their sightings of locomotives and multiple units by uploading their first hand information reports from what they’ve also seen on their travels, so other train spotters and railway enthusiasts can also benefit. Some websites such as WWRail Forum have a section dedicated to uploading TOPS lists, we do not offer this because we respect the privacy and anonymity of train operating companies workings.
Below, we have compiled a list of important websites and resources that will definitely help you in getting started and finding those popular locomotives.
Groups.io / Yahoo! groups email list website
Websites such as groups.io and groups.yahoo.com have railway groups committed to sharing sightings and useful information about different things. It is well worth registering for a groups.io and yahoo groups account because its free. You’ll need to search for groups in your area. Information and sightings can be uploaded to the website by email. You’ll receive updates from the groups by email (can be disabled), as well as view the “gen” through the website. Below we have listed a few that we think you’ll find useful.
- SE-Gen (groups.io) – a group dedicated to sightings in the South East of the UK, from Bedford down to Portsmouth and Kent. Includes information about RHTT allocations, rare movements on the mainline and heads up about future uncommon workings.
- uk-rail (groups.io) – a UK wide sighting group, information similar to SE-Gen but is for whole of UK
- WRGen – Rail information and sightings for the Wessex area
- Midlands-Gen (Yahoo Groups) – Rail information and sightings for the Midlands area
- Network-Rail-Gen (groups.io) provides occasional sighting information about test trains, often run by 1960s diesel locomotives, and some newer freight locomotives.
Railway forums are also a useful resource (such as railforums.co.uk) and WNXX forum, because they often have boards dedicated to questions/answers where you can ask about particular train workings, and if anyone knows, they’ll give you information about the whereabouts of trains you need. Other resources that may come in handy:
- Various Facebook gen groups, such as The Real Railway Gen Group. (Free).
- Freightmaster – hand compiled train timetables for services that often run, and the locomotive class that runs them (paid).
It’s important to emphasize that you should always stay safe when train spotting. Below are some important tips.
- Do not cross the yellow line at stations. This includes legs of tripods and legs of human beings.
- Do not wave with both arms in the air – this should only be done in an emergency and you need the train to stop for safety reasons.
- Advise station staff of your presence. Make sure that platform staff know your intentions so that you’re not acting suspiciously.
- Try to keep out of the way of commuters. Most train spotters go to the far end of the platform for good shots, but should not pass any signs at the ends of the platform.
- When using foot crossings, be aware that trains can come in either direction at any time.
- You should always follow the advice of staff on the platform. Whilst most stations will be train spotter friendly (Eastleigh is a good example that welcomes train spotters), but if staff ask you to leave the station, you should do so.
We hope that this guide has been useful. If you’d like any further information, please do not hesitate to comment below.