I’ve decided Andrew, a man in his early sixties, belongs in the ‘in denial’ category of trainspotters. “I’m not a trainspotter, of course,” he opens our conversation, before going on to tell me about the webcam he’s got set up outside his house in northern England pointing up the train line, so he can grab his camera and get outside in time to catch anything interesting coming by.
Not that I’m a trainspotter, of course. You can tell that because technically, Andrew and the 26 others he’s with are train photographers, not trainspotters. If I were a trainspotter, I’d think that was an important distinction.
I meet Andrew when I come to Wolsztyn, in Poland’s west, for an article I’m writing about the upcoming nineteenth annual Steam Train Parade. I’d never heard of Wolsztyn (population 14,000) before. This is another way you know I’m not a trainspotter. Because in trainspotting circles, it’s world famous: the last place anywhere in the world with a regular commuter train service pulled by steam trains.
“In the 1990s, there were still lots of steam locos in remote places,” Howard Jones, the doyen of all things train-related in this town, had told me over a beer earlier in the day. “By 1997, when I arrived here, this was the last one.” Being a long term steam train enthusiast (“I don’t say trainspotter,” he notes, smiling wryly. Howard smiles wryly a lot), he decided to see if he could preserve it.
I momentarily wonder if it really matters — I mean, there are plenty of steam trains still running tourist routes, right? It’s like Howard can read my mind. “You can go and see a lion in the zoo. Or you can go to Africa. This is Africa,” he explains. I decide Howard is the ‘quotable quote’ kind of trainspotter. As a journalist, I like them very much.
Together with his UK-based brother Trevor, he set up The Wolsztyn Experience, a non-profit organisation that now gives 20,000 steam train buffs from all over the world the chance to see, drive on and photograph these trains in their natural environment. It’s this which, in turn, provides the funding to keep them going. A win-win all round. For people who like trains, anyway.
Like Lyle from the Blue Mountains. Lyle’s an accountant in his thirties. In jeans and a checked top, he looks like a regular bloke you’d meet down the pub. A regular bloke who, every year since 2004, has spent his holidays in Wolsztyn driving steam trains. “You’re on a steam loco in the 21st century,” he says, trying to explain why. “Bringing it in on schedule and getting people there on time, exactly the same as in the 60s, the 30s, the 20s,” he says, eyes shining.
Stan, from Boston, has snowy-white hair, wire-rimmed glasses and works in insurance by day. “Passengers are here to get from A to B. You leave Poznan empty and arrive full. It’s unique,” he tells me, his enthusiasm showing no signs of abating despite three previous trips here.
I decide Lyle and Stan fit into the ‘in another life I would have been a train driver’ type of, um, enthusiast. They’re definitely not ‘train snappers’, (as I’ve dubbed the photographers) though. I tell Lyle I’m meeting the train photography group later on. He shakes his head. “That’s just weird. Who’d do that?” he says.
Walter, for one. Walter’s a retired train driver (what else) from Adelaide. He’s your ‘font of interesting train-related facts’ (train snapper sub-group) type of enthusiast, I decide. He tells me, for example, that it was train travel that led to the standardisation of time — since you can’t overtake on rails, exact time became important. “I’m not a trainspotter, though,” he explains patiently, in what’s becoming a bit of a theme. “I don’t collect the numbers or anything –I can’t explain that.’
Whether you can explain it or not, there’s no denying there’s something about steam trains that touches large numbers of people. “It may not be better than sex — but it lasts longer,” is Howard’s favourite visitor’s book quote, although my personal favourite is: “You can’t wind the clock back. But you can wind it up again.” Maybe I don’t really get it. But I seem to have spent my time in Wolsztyn spotting trainspotters, so who am I to talk.
And Andrew manages to make Whatever It Is He Does That Isn’t Trainspotting even sound rather exciting. “It’s a bit like industrial espionage,” he whispers, slightly conspiratorially, “I snuck into a yard once and got one of a yellow painted diesel that was being repaired.” He pauses. “I flew over the Himalayas once. I posted a photo of five of the highest mountains in the world on my site. That got five hits. The yellow loco got 3000.” He shrugs, as if to say, “go figure.”
“It’s just a harmless hobby,” he continues, before sighing deeply. “You know, I’m retired, I live on my own. For a while I didn’t have any reason to leave the house. This gives me a reason to leave the house, and people to talk to when I do.” I decide that whatever Andrew chooses to call himself, I can’t argue with his logic. I take his web address and promise to look up his Himalaya photo. And the yellow loco, while I’m at it.
At the end of the evening, I clear my throat and ask Howard if he knows where I can get a Wolsztyn pin. “It’s just that I collect little pins from every place I go, you see,” feeling the need to explain myself. He just smiles kindly. As someone with a harmless little hobby of my own, I sense I’m among friends here.
The nineteenth annual Steam Train Parade will be held in Wolsztyn, Poland on April 30. Expect steam locos from all around Europe, and 10,000 steam train… er… enthusiasts of all descriptions. And yes, you can click on all those photos to make them bigger train fans.