Time Tunnel: Publications For Train Spotters

JPEGJuice | Thursday, 28 February 2019 |

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These days, if we saw someone opening up a deck chair on a piece of waste ground next to a railway line, in mid winter, we’d probably assume they were a few sandwiches short of the full picnic basket. But in the 1970s, train spotters did exactly that, and no one batted an eyelid.

In the evening, your school teacher sat in a luggage trolley on Platform 10a at New Street station, with a pad and pen. Shine, rain or snow. Yes, once upon a time, people really were that dedicated to train spotting, and it was contagious. Platform ends got seriously overcrowded with spotters, all somehow trying to turn British Rail’s steps, parcel receptors and ramps into items of makeshift furniture. In the summer, some spotters would just sit, kneel or even lie on the concrete.

The UK’s railway was a very different place back then. Inherently more exciting than it can ever be in the high-tech, heavily standardised and altogether more reliable age of 2019. But spotters in the post-steam era would not have bustled so feverishly without the publishers. Train spotting books, and other published matter, set everything into context. Gave locomotives, and other vehicles, an identity. In this post, I’m taking a retrospective look at the publishing scene that glorified British Rail to the enthusiast in the 1970s and early 1980s.


Ian Allan’s Combined Volume – known among spotters as “The Combine” – came in durable hardback, with a professional appearance. It included diesel and electric locomotives, plus diesel and electric multiple units, and preserved locos. These are the 1968, 1973 and 1978 editions.

Train spotters’ books date back to the 1940s, and in essence are very simple. Trains, and/or individual vehicles within those trains, have numbers which uniquely identify them. The fleet book lists those numbers, and the train spotter marks off each number upon seeing the train. The book is typically pocket-sized, so it can be carried everywhere and checked on demand. Like a smartphone.

Spotters’ books are still available in this format, but due to a huge reduction in the need for hard-copy lists, coupled with a massive decline in the traditional form of train spotting, they don’t have anything like the profile they had forty years ago.

Ian Allan had pioneered the spotters’ book deep back in the steam age. And by the 1970s, the Ian Allan company offered a highly professional-looking selection of pocket-sized volumes, known as the ABC series. The ABC books focused on different facets of British Railways vehicle stock, and provided different types of information. A cynic, however, might say that the information was calculatedly rationed, so as to engineer the purchase of more than one book.

For example, the ABC Locoshed book gave locomotive and multiple unit depot allocations, which helped spotters understand which routes the trains covered. But it didn’t provide specifications or locomotive names. For that info, the spotter would need to additionally buy either multiple paperbacks (because diesel and electric locomotives were split), or a hardback Combined Volume. And even if the spotter bought the hardback Combined Volume, they wouldn’t get the geographical allocations, so would still need to buy the Locoshed.

In the early to mid 1970s, there were alternatives to Ian Allan’s products, like the 1974 Dalescroft Locotraction paperback shown in the image above.

But the rival activity seriously intensified in the late ‘seventies. By then, spotting book publishers included NREA, NCTS, Midland Railfans… And they were just part of a wave of rivals eager to seize Ian Allan’s market.

To gain a competitive advantage, some rivals sought to remedy Ian Allan’s system of splitting up information. Because of evolution within the fleet, the useful life of these books was only a year at max. There was no real need for the books to be issued in an everlasting hardback format. So if rivals could pack all of the most salient spotting info into just one, cheaper paperback, then logically, they'd have a trading advantage over Ian Allan.

OPC (Oxford Publishing Company) made the best attempt at this. They crammed useful spec, loco names and depot allocations into a single paperback called Spotters Companion. It included locomotives and multiple units, and launched at 50p in 1979, when the necessaries from Ian Allan would cost about £2. Despite the atrocious choice of title (“spotter” had become a pejorative substitute for “novice” among some enthusiasts), OPC’s deal would have been a no-brainer…. Had it not been for an upstart ‘underground publisher/distributor’ by the name of Platform 5 Publications…

Platform 5’s first editions predated Spotters Companion, but they had a home-made vibe, and very early on they were duplicated by a small local copier – SCLF in Sheffield. You can see the original DIY look of Platform 5’s books above left, with the 1978 Depot Directory. Compare the look with that of D&L’s inaugural Number by Number (1983) on the right.

In terms of presentation, Platform 5’s first offerings appeared decidely amateurish alongside the Ian Allan books. But Platform 5 understood the post-steam enthusiast better than anyone else, and offered a small but critically important piece of additional information for each number entry in the Motive Power Pocket Book. Namely, a code for each individual locomotive, denoting its train compatibility. It was a dynamite inclusion.

Could the locomotive provide train heating? If not, in winter it would only be compatible with freight trains. And if it could provide heating, did it heat with steam, or electricity? A diesel loco which only provided steam heating could not heat a new train, whereas a diesel which only provided electric heating could not heat an old train. All of this compatibility info told the enthusiast how likely a specific locomotive was to turn up on a given type of train. And consequently, how rare the use of that locomotive would be.

Platform 5’s compatibility code also denoted the type of braking system, along with more focused features such as the fitting of slow-speed control. And it did all of this per loco. That was crucial, since many diesel classes randomly harboured different train compatibilities, from one example to the next. Platform 5 really ‘got’ the mentality of the modern enthusiast, who was interested in ‘haulage’ – riding behind the locomotives rather than just spotting them. The chance to get a passenger ‘haulage’ from a loco that was only technically compatible with freight, could create an immense buzz. That’s why Platform 5’s compatibility info meant so much.

Notably, Platform 5 still to an extent followed the Ian Allan system of dividing up the fleet listings into separate books. They just did so in a better-targeted and more consumer-friendly way.

Ian Allan’s main rivals also shared another trait that upstaged the ABC series… More frequent updates. The Ian Allan spotting books came out anually, but the rivals published at least twice a year. The more frequent releases enabled market newbies to compete with the Ian Allan system for annual unit sales, whilst offering a real, as opposed to commercially-engineered, benefit to the consumer.

In 1983, Number By Number ushered in another special selling point. Other books restricted their listings to extant stock. Once a locomotive was withdrawn from service, then unless it went into preservation, it no longer appeared in a current fleet list. But Number By Number listed every diesel and electric loco, including the ones that had been scrapped. This enabled seasoned spotters and haulage fans to maintain and show off their retrospective sightings and haulages in an otherwise current book.

The difference between a success and a flop in the arena of fleet lists could be extremely subtle. Virtually invisible to the layperson, but totally game-changing to the enthusiast.

Alternative spotters’ publications of the late 1970s. They include two Midland Railfans books from 1978. The mid 1979 NCTS Loco Stock Book – home-typed on all but the cover. The third edition of Platform 5’s Motive Power Pocket Book – now sporting a professional cover, but still decidedly DIY inside. The first edition of OPC’s Spotters Companion. And the mega-low-budget NREA Loco Allocation Book.

In 1977, alt publishers Midland Railfans had notably also run an ‘underground’ monthly magazine, which was billed as “free to members”. But since annual membership cost £2.10, it could effectively be seen as a subscription-only publication, costing seventeen and a half pence per issue. Which brings us neatly into the thick of ‘underground’ publications…


The traditional, and in many cases only way that a new type of enthusiast publication could find its feet was through direct sale. No shops. No pitching to publishers. Not even a distribution company in the first instance.

You had an author with a typewriter or simply a pen, and most importantly, some information that wasn’t otherwise generally available. Then you had a finite but truly desperate consumer-base. The author would write the list, or guide, or whatever it was, then get it copied, and then take it out to enthusiast hotspots in anything from an Adidas bag to an estate car. A works/depot open day or preservation event would be a good bet. But failing that, certain service trains and stations were guaranteed to be packed with enthusiasts – especially on a summer Saturday.

The author would sell out, buy more supplies, make more copies, and the operation would begin to scale up – especially as customers found the ordering address and list of other offerings inside the cover. If a publication generated a buzz, it might then be picked up by an ‘underground’ distributor. In the 1970s, Platform 5 was involved in ‘underground’ distribution. In the image above you can see how ‘cottage’ the Platform 5 business was back in 1978. The distributor name and address is stamped, but “supplied by” is written in biro.

Volumes such as To The Last Drop, S.O. (Saturdays Only), and the Bashchair, were very home-made in nature. While To The Last Drop (above left) was created on a typewriter, the Bashchair (above right) was simply written by hand and submitted for copying.

To The Last Drop (45p circa 1979) was a guide to amassing the most desirable locomotive rides (or ‘haulages’) within a co-ordinated daily itinerary. The idea was that the enthusiast would buy a rover or ranger ticket covering a particular region, and then use the book’s suggestions or templates to organise each day’s travel within that area. For those venturing into new areas, the choreographed information was priceless.

The Bashchair (20p circa 1980) was a full list of every express train scheduled to visit a particular station. A timetable, but with extra info which would not be provided in British Rail’s own public offerings. The platform number from which each train would arrive and depart, for example. And the train headcodes. Headcodes were unique identifiers for each rail service – shortcodes, if you like. They were heavily used in enthusiast discussion because they were quick to say and immune to inconsistencies in departure/arrival times. Being able to reference headcodes was thus essential for serious haulage-seekers – or ‘bashers’, as they were known.

Especially without prior sales data, the appeal of these ‘underground’ publications would be lost on mainstream publishers. If the authors had not self-published and started selling directly, the books would never have seen the light of day.


Railway magazines filled the gaps between infrequent spotting book updates. But the magazines of the 1970s could be a frustrating affair for fans of “modern” traction. The steam age, which hadn’t ended until late in the previous decade, was still very much in mind, and most titles evidently saw the older steam enthusiast as their primary allegiance.

The selection above shows how colourful and enticing the covers of ’70s and ’80s railway magazines were. But inside they could be full of heavy, difficult reading with thinly-spread, small, black and white pictures. Disappointing for a 12-16 year old who was nuts about diesels and really just wanted to know where to find them. Despite the ‘all rounder’ implications of its title, Railway World was overwhelmingly steam-biased.

Ian Allan’s Modern Railways dealt with the current diesel and electric scene, but in the ‘70s, still tended to steer towards the older reader who was more of a business and ‘big picture’ observer than a number-spotter. The often pompous and pedantic public contributions to the Forum pages gave an insight into who was buying the publication.

Don’t get me wrong; Modern Railways was information-rich, and I now see a value in it that I just couldn’t as a kid. But even so, in the late '70s it was not aimed squarely at the post-steam traction nut in the way some magazines are today.

In fairness, producing magazines at a quality that ‘cash in hand’ buyers would accept was a lot more difficult and investment-hungry than producing fleet lists, glorified timetables or itinerary guides. Hence, the product on the newsagent’s shelf was always at the mercy of established publishing companies. But things did begin to change right at the end of the 1970s, when Modern Railways Pictorial came along. This new-style magazine stripped away the strategy, policy, opinion, letters, vengeful columns about poor cutomer service, and rather obsessive ‘accident reporting’ of its sister mag, to concentrate on diesel and electric traction images.

Initially, MRP was only published quarterly, and like all railway publications at the time, its imagery defaulted to black and white. Plus, you’d still have to buy one of the monthlies to get the motive power stock updates, because that info was not included in early editions of the Pictorial.

But by 1981, Modern Railways Pictorial had gone monthly, and it now included stock updates, full traffic highlights, etc. In 1982, the mag also introduced Les Nixon’s Photoguide – technical advice for spotters wanting to become photographers – along with a new Railrover feature. MRP had become the first complete mainstream monthly specifically for the post-steam train fanatic, as opposed to the modern railway observer. But even by then the magazine’s pictorial output was still about 94% black and white, and Nixon’s Photoguide, which cited his use of Kodak Tri-X black and white film, did not discuss colour photography.


While colour printing was expensive and somewhat challenging in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were hints that the railway publishers’ reluctance to upgrade from black and white to a colour default had not solely been down to their own costs. Getting enthusiasts to foot the higher bill was probably not the real problem. In the late ‘seventies, a full colour hardback pictorial book could be produced to retail for about the cost of two pop albums – which really wasn’t significantly prohibitive given the spectacle of great colour photography in a monochrome world. So what was prohibiting colour publishing?…

One issue was the availability of colour images. Publisher-acceptable colour film was slow to expose in the ’60s and ’70s, which made it hard for photographers to attain a shutter speed that would freeze a fast-moving train. Things had been even worse in the 1950s, with pro-quality colour film operating at an ISO/ASA speed of just 10. That’s why almost all of the premium colour steam pics from the 1950s are of static locos.

Further, colour processing could not be undertaken in a home darkroom as it could with black and white, so with colour, serious photographers had a lot less control over their results. And colour photography was more expensive, so colour photographers were paying a lot more to produce their images.

This meant that even if photographers could be persuaded to shoot more colour in the now, the back catalogue of publishable colour material was thin on the ground. There was thus a stalemate between photographers and publishers, with neither party giving the other much impetus to switch to a colour default. But perhaps above all of that stood the law of lacking imperative…

Everything was Rail Blue. Even in the early ’80s when large logo livery started to spread, the actual locomotive colours were still BR blue and yellow. It was nice to see colour pictures, but they didn’t really tell you much that a monochrome couldn’t. This changed going into the mid ‘eightes, as BR’s colour palette widened, and the variety of liveries created an imperative for colour railway pictures. At that point, the stalemate broke, and full colour rail publishing took off.


Earlier '70s successes in post-steam hardbacks featured diesel-hydraulic locomotives - in black and white.

Long before the Modern Railways Pictorial magazine arrived, pictorials with a post-steam focus had been available in hardback format. Ian Allan had a finger in that pie, but OPC showed a much better understanding of the post-steam enthusiast. Two of OPC’s first serious successes in modern traction pictorial books were Diesels – Western Style, and Westerns, Hymeks and Warships, both by Keith Montague. The former title was produced just five and a half years after the end of the BR steam age, when it certainly wasn’t a given that a diesel-focused book would achieve such popularity.

A notable publishing rival to OPC in 1974 was Bradford Barton, who at that time released the H L Ford pictorial: Diesels on the Devon Main Line.

OPC’s success with hardback modern traction books continued with the Diesels Nationwide series, and very memorably, the Power series. The Power series recognised that specific diesel types had sizeable fanbases, who would want a book entirely dedicated to their favourite class.

Again, the vast bulk of the imagery was reproduced in black and white – even the cover shots in the earlier works. Was there nothing a modern traction fan could do to amass professional colour images in the 1970s? Actually, there was…


Postcards often featured static locomotives in ex-works condition. The static scenes may have been down to the use of Kodachrome 25 film - a product with excellent colour reproduction and vivid saturation, but too slow a speed for fast action shots. Ex-works condition accentuated the colour of the livery. Dirt would dim down the vividness of the colour.

One of the reasons postcards did such a roaring trade was that they offered striking, colour pictures of locomotives, in a black and white age. Because postcards could be bought individually as well as in sets, consumers were entirely in control of their budget. A lot of the market comprised kids, who might have a spare 10p, but not a spare 50p. Individual postcards let kids spend that spare 10p, 20p or 30p, in a way that other published matter would not. In the late ‘70s, modern traction postcards were best associated with OPC.

And there we must leave it. Not an exhaustive list, obviously, but hopefully it gives some insight into the railway publishing scene of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.