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Railfan photographers in Belgium, at the farewell of the NMBS/SNCB Class 51 locomotive
Railfan photographing a Caltrain service in the United States

A railfan, rail buff or train buff (American English), railway enthusiast or railway buff (Australian/British English), trainspotter or ferroequinologist is a person interested, especially recreationally, in rail transport.[1][2]

Railfans of many ages can be found worldwide. They often combine their interest with other hobbies, especially photography and videography, radio scanning, railway modelling, studying railroad history and participating in railway station and rolling stock preservation efforts. There are many magazines dedicated to railfanning and railway enthusiasts, including Trains, Railfan & Railroad, The Railway Magazine, Locomotive Magazine, and Railway Gazette International.

Other names[edit]

In the United Kingdom, rail enthusiasts are often called trainspotters or anoraks. The term gricer has been used in the UK since at least 1969 and is said to have been current in 1938 amongst members of the Manchester Locomotive Society, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. There has been speculation that the term derives from "grouser", one who collects dead grouse after a shoot, but other etymologies have also been suggested.[3]

In Australia, they are sometimes referred to as "gunzels".[4][5]

In the United States, they can be pejoratively referred to as "foamers".[6] There is a dispute over whether this comes from the related term "Foamite" (which stands for "Far Out and Mentally Incompetent Train Enthusiasts") or whether it refers to "the notion of foaming-at-the-mouth craziness".[7]


In British English, the term trainspotter dates from 1958, but the sense of the word trainspotting later evolved into its meaning in 1959.

Since that time, trainspotting endures as a hobby in part of the observance of trains in recorded numbers.


ČSD Locomotive 498.104 in Košice at the head of a nostalgic train
A train parade on a railway test circuit in Moscow, Russia. Railfans taking photos and videos of rolling stock
A model railway of Berlin's Bahnhof Zoo at the LOXX Berlin model railway

The hobby extends to all aspects of rail transport systems. Railfans may have one or more particular concentrations of interest, such as:

The scope of the subject is so large that fans may additionally concentrate their interest on a particular country, town, railway company, field of operations or era in history – or a combination of any of the above.

Railway photography[edit]

Railfans taking train photos at the Japan Railways Group (JR) Tokyo train center
A railfan taking photos in a driving cab of a diesel locomotive during an excursion tour

Train photography is a common activity of railfans. Most railfans do their photographing from public property, unless they have permission to use a specific private property owner's land. Occasionally, they run into problems with law enforcement, especially due to post 9/11 security concerns, because they are sometimes viewed as suspicious. In 2004, for example, the New York City Subway attempted to institute a photo ban, which was met with fierce opposition and ultimately scrapped.[8] The Port Authority Trans–Hudson (PATH) successfully implemented a photo ban that is still in effect (although it predated the September 11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing); it has led to confiscations and arrests on the PATH system.[9]

Some railroad photographers have become well known for their works. Many railfans are familiar with the works of H. Reid, Otto Perry and O. Winston Link; in the UK with Derek Cross (1929–84), John Whitehouse, Maurice W. Earley (1900–82), Rev. Alfred H. Malan (1852–1928), Brian W. Morrison, Ivo Peters, Jim Spurling (1926–Present), H. Gordon Tidey and Rev. Eric Treacy; in New Zealand, with W.W. (Bill) Stewart (1898–1976); or in Germany with Carl Bellingrodt (1897–1971).[citation needed]

  • In the United Kingdom, photography is allowed at all stations on the National Rail network.[10] Transport for London, however, does not allow photography without permission and a permit issued by the TfL Film Office. However, photography for personal use, without ancillary equipment is allowed without a permit.[11] The Tyne and Wear Metro prohibits all photography without written permission from Nexus, the system's operators. As of 2015, it is the only system in the UK with such a policy.[12]
  • In Singapore, photography and filming is permitted in all MRT stations for non-commercial purposes during weekdays between 10am and 4pm.[13]
  • The Spanish RENFE railroad company used to ask for a permit, but since 2018 it is not needed.[14] However, photographers may encounter problems with security guards.
  • In Greece, railway photography is permitted on all networks[15] but railfans are frequently confronted by security guards.
  • In Russia, railway photography is permitted on all networks[16] but railfans are frequently confronted by security guards.
  • In Italy, the Royal Decree n°1161 enacted on July 11, 1941, concerning "military secrets", prohibited all and any photographs and video recordings in and around a number of civilian and military installations, including public railways. Railway photography was largely tolerated by tacit agreement, but could be prosecuted as a felony. The law was repealed by Legislative Decree n°66 enacted on March 15, 2010.[17][18]
  • The Union Pacific Railroad Corporation makes available to its employees and shareholders a full color calendar each year depicting its trains in different parts of the United States where it maintains its rail lines.[citation needed]
  • In Indonesia, railway photography and filming can be performed in all stations and for all trains, although at times security guards disallow serious photography using professional cameras or video recorders. Mobile phone cameras, pocket cameras, and entry level handycams, however, are typically allowed, and there is no regulation banning railway photography or filming in stations.[clarification needed] For commercial use, a permit must be obtained from the rail office or station's head.[citation needed]

People who register for a special permit to take photos and videos with professional camcorders are exempted from the bans. With proper registration, filming and photography is considered an amateur enthusiast activity that poses no risk or threat.


A July 1844 timetable for the Long Island Rail Road

Those who are "trainspotters" make an effort to "spot" all of a certain type of rolling stock. This might be a particular class of locomotive, a particular type of carriage or all the rolling stock of a particular company. To this end, they collect and exchange detailed information about the movements of locomotives and other equipment on the railway network, and become very knowledgeable about its operations.

A trainspotter typically uses a data book listing the locomotives or equipment in question, in which locomotives seen are ticked off. An early trainspotter was 14-year-old Fanny Gordon, who in 1861 recorded the names of locomotives passing Westbourne Park station on the Great Western Railway.[19] In Great Britain, this aspect of the hobby was given a major impetus by the publication from 1942 onward of the Ian Allan "ABC" series of booklets, whose publication began in response to public requests for information about the locomotives of the Southern Railway.[20] Sometimes, trainspotters also have cameras, but railway photography is mostly linked to railfans.[who?] Moreover, in contrast to modern railway companies' attitudes, at its inception in 1948 British Railways handed out free copies of a locomotive data book to school-children.[citation needed]

Some trainspotters now use a camera instead of a notebook. In modern times, mobile phones and/or pagers are used to communicate with others in the hobby, while various internet mailing lists and web sites aid information exchange. Railbuffs can maintain private computerised databases of spotting records as well. Radio scanners are common equipment for listening to railroad frequencies in the US to follow rail traffic.[citation needed]

It is a misconception that all railfans are trainspotters. Many enthusiasts simply enjoy reading about or travelling on trains, or enjoying their rich history—this may extend to art, architecture, the operation of railroads, or simply modelling, drawing or photographing them.[citation needed]

Railway trips[edit]


The term "bashing" is used by railway enthusiasts to mean several things. Used alone, it is a general term for a railway enthusiast's trip, excursion or holiday involving train travel and observation.[citation needed] "Line bashing" is an attempt to cover as much of a railway network as possible. It may also be called "track bashing", especially if the person wishes to cover individual sections of track, such as crossovers and sidings, in addition to completing an "A to B" journey on each of the line's sections. In the UK (especially), Germany, and to a lesser extent other countries, railfans often use a special excursion train (usually known as a "railtour") to cover freight-only railway lines to complete their coverage of a country's rail network.[citation needed] "Shed bashing" describes going out to as many railway sheds or depots as possible. It was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. As they required a permit that could be hard to obtain, some "shed bashers" were illegal.[21] Another development from trainspotting, almost unique to the UK, is the "haulage basher" or locomotive haulage enthusiast.[22] Yet another use for the term is in reference to the act of repeatedly riding on a specific train that is set to be decommissioned, the purpose of which, being to take in all the unique aspects of the model before it becomes unavailable.


Railfans taking video of a moving restored train with steam locomotives during a fantrip from their road car

Many railway preservation groups run special trips for railfans using restored trains, often on "rare mileage" lines that do not see regular passenger service.[23] These trips are both social events and opportunities for railfans to photograph unusual trains. Chasing a fantrip by road for the purposes of photography is often referred to as "motorcading" in Australia.[24][25]

Collecting railroadiana[edit]

A brakeman's lantern from the Chicago and North Western Railway

Many railfans also collect "railroadiana" or "railwayana", artifacts from railroads and railroad operations including public or employee timetables, locomotive number boards, builder's plates, builder's photographs, dining car china, passenger train tickets, tools and equipment such as lanterns, and sometimes items as big as train horns or track speeders. Although few can afford the acquisition cost or storage space, some railfans collect full size rolling stock or locomotives.[citation needed]

Exploring abandoned railways[edit]

The overgrown remains of Lilbourne railway station in Northamptonshire, on the former Rugby and Stamford Railway line in Great Britain

Searching for and exploring abandoned railways is another area of railfan interest. Using old maps, one may find the former route, and the abandoned railway stations, tunnels and bridges may remain after a railway closure. Some abandoned rail rights-of-way have been converted to rail-trails for recreational use such as bicycling, walking, hiking, running or jogging. This would be considered railbanking, where the right-of-way is preserved, by keeping it intact, for the potential reactivation of rail service in the future.

Other activities[edit]

Some railfans are interested in other aspects of railroads not directly dealing with the trains. They may be interested in studying the history of the railroad companies, their infrastructure, law, financing and operations, including never-built plans. Abandoned railroad grades can often be found long after the railroad stops using them. Trams (and occasionally even monorails) may also be of interest.[according to whom?]

Some enthusiasts combine their interest in trains with the hobby of monitoring radio communications, specializing in listening to radio communications of railroad operations using a scanner.[26]

Various magazines, clubs and museums are designed mainly for railfans, concentrating on the history of trains and railroads. Some clubs organize fantrips, either by car or by train; the New York Transit Museum owns some old equipment with which fantrips are occasionally run on the New York City Subway.[citation needed]

Origins of interest[edit]

Railfans on a 1939 camera excursion train in Ohio, USA

The motivation for someone developing an interest in railways can come from many sources.[27][28]

Many railfans focus on steam locomotives, which sometimes also fascinate the general public, as seen by the attendance at stations to view steam-hauled railtours. Sometimes the appeal of trains is nostalgic, recalling an earlier era when the railroads played a central role in commerce and transportation, and the station was the center of every town. Nostalgia may also result from the long, lonesome wail of the train's horn, which mimics vocalizations that want for a more simple time reminiscent of home, as heard in country or folk music worldwide.[29] Sometimes the appeal is due to a fondness for large machinery that can be inspected and photographed up close.

Sometimes there is an appeal of the scenery of the railroad running through open, uninviting terrain, or the gritty ambiance of the urban train yard. In this case, urban exploration poses a similar appeal. Some people were raised near streetcar tracks or railways. Everyday activities were associated with railroad, which seemed to be a part of life. This may lead to an interest in railcars, how they move, numbering, and other rail systems in the world and how they compare with their native ones. If these people move to another locale, their interest in railroads might be nostalgic.[citation needed]

Another appeal of the railroads is the business side of railroading. Railroads were long central to economic growth and commerce, and still are to some extent. The history of railroads and railroaders (such as James J. Hill) is a fascination for some, whether they view them in a positive way as capitalist heroes or in a negative way as robber barons.


Railfans in the United States have been asked to keep railroad areas safer by reporting crimes and suspicious activity.[30] In the United Kingdom the British Transport Police have asked trainspotters to report any unusual behaviour and activities at stations.[31]

In the United States, concerns about terrorism have led to situations where railfans are followed or confronted by local law enforcement or transit police.[32][33] This has also led to situations where certain transportation agencies have implemented photography bans systemwide.

The BNSF railway instituted the "Citizens for Rail Security"[34] (CRS) program for the general public to report suspicious activities on their railways. Obtaining this card is common for railfans and is a derivative of the BNSF "On Guard" program for employees. However, this card does not recognize members as employees or contractors, and asks them to keep off railway property. Amtrak offers a similar program, "Partners for Amtrak Safety and Security" (PASS).[35]

Network Rail, the British rail infrastructure owner and station operator, has produced guidelines for the behaviour and responsibilities of railway enthusiasts at its stations.[36] In May 2010, the dangers of acting carelessly in the vicinity of an active railway were highlighted after an enthusiast, standing next to a double track line photographing the Oliver Cromwell, failed to notice a Turbostar express train approaching at 70 mph on the nearer track in the other direction, and came within inches of being struck by it.[37][38]


Railfans have jargon that can be foreign to others:

See also[edit]

Similar hobbies[edit]


  1. ^ Larson, Russ (1974). "Learn the lingo". N Scale Primer (Fourth printing, 1977 ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Kalmbach Publishing. p. 101.
  2. ^ Kisor, p. 5.
  3. ^ "Gricer, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  4. ^ Campbell, Don (2004-01-02). "Gunzels". Trams Down Under. Tramway Museum Society of Victoria. Archived from the original on September 5, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
  5. ^ Moynihan, Stephen (October 1, 2007). "Rail Fans Celebrate Own Win as New Line Launched". The Age. Retrieved 2007-10-05.
  6. ^ Gold, Scott (May 12, 2007). "Train hobbyists are loco for that motion". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on October 14, 2011. Retrieved June 19, 2022.
  7. ^ Barry, Dan (2009-11-07). "Awesome Train Set, Mr. Buffett". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-01-02.
  8. ^ "village voice > nyclife > Forbidden Photos, Anyone? by Matt Haber". February 28, 2005. Archived from the original on February 28, 2005. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  9. ^ "Is it really illegal to take pictures in the train station? Transit agencies have differing policies for photographers videographers a". Hudson Reporter. December 23, 2014. Retrieved March 2, 2018.
  10. ^ "Railway enthusiasts". Network Rail. Retrieved 2015-09-25.
  11. ^ "Filming & photography on TFL".
  12. ^ "Photography and filming | nexus.org.uk". www.nexus.org.uk. Archived from the original on 2019-11-12.
  13. ^ "SMRT Trains: FAQs". SMRT Trains. Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  14. ^ "Adif - Permisos de aficionados". adif.es (in Spanish). Retrieved 2017-07-11.
  15. ^ "Legal case" (PDF).
  16. ^ "распоряжение 1513р".
  17. ^ "Regio Decreto 11 luglio 1941, n. 1161. - Norme relative al segreto militare" (PDF). www.meniero.it/. 2013-04-12.
  18. ^ "Decreto Legislativo 15 marzo 2010, n. 66" (PDF). www.difesa.it/.
  19. ^ Foster, Mark (27 August 2014). "First recorded trainspotter was not man clad in anorak but 14-year-old girl Fanny Johnson". Northern Echo. Retrieved 1 August 2021.
  20. ^ Interview with Ian Allan as part of the Last Days of Steam broadcast as part of the Timeshift series, BBC Four, 5 April 2012
  21. ^ Railway Top Spots: Revisiting the Top Train Spotting Destinations of Our Childhood - by Julian Holland
  22. ^ Carter, Gary. "Everything You Need To Know About "Bashing"". (A Beginner's Guide). Dreadful.org.uk. Retrieved 2007-03-27.
  23. ^ "Rare Mileage". American Heritage. Archived from the original on 2008-12-01. Retrieved 2007-10-29.
  24. ^ "Australian Railway Slang". Home.alphalink.com.au. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  25. ^ "Hotham Valley Railway". Hotham Valley Railway. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  26. ^ Tom Kneitel, K2AES (1990) [1982]. Rail-Scan: Directory of railroad scanner frequencies. New York: CRB Research Books, Inc. pp. 5–6. ISBN 0-939780-12-7.
  27. ^ Simmons, J.; Biddle, G., eds. (1997). "Enthusiasts". The Oxford Companion to British Railway History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211697-5.
  28. ^ Richards, J.; McKenzie, J. M. (1986). The Railway Station: A Social History. Oxford University Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 0-19-215876-7.
  29. ^ Fox, Aaron A. (2004-10-04). "Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture". Duke University Press Books. Retrieved 2013-10-12Cited by Radiolab. Season 4, Episode 5, 39:00.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  30. ^ "BNSF Railway Asks Rail Fans for Cooperation To Keep America's Rail System Safe". BNSF Railway. June 7, 2006. Archived from the original on February 8, 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-04.
  31. ^ "British Transport Police advice to Rail Enthusiasts". Btp.police.uk. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
  32. ^ Ripley, Amanda (May 16, 2004). "Hobbyist or Terrorist?". time.com.
  33. ^ Phillips, Don (November 17, 2002). "'Railfans' Love Trains, But They Draw Stares From Cops After 9-11". orlandosentinel.com.
  34. ^ "Citizens for Rail Security has moved".
  35. ^ "Partners for Amtrak Safety and Security website". police.amtrak.com. Retrieved 2014-09-25.
  36. ^ "Railway enthusiasts". Network Rail. Retrieved 2012-03-15.
  37. ^ "Train spotter in narrow escape". BBC News. May 14, 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-14.
  38. ^ "Railway buff filming in Suffolk fails to see express". BBC News. May 14, 2010. Retrieved 2010-05-14.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]