What is a Railfan?
A railfan, rail buff or train buff (American English); railway enthusiast or railway buff (Australian/British English); trainspotter or ferroequinologist, is a person interested, recreationally, in rail transport.
Railfans of many ages can be found worldwide. Railfans 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 such as Trains and Railfan & Railroad.
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.
In the United States, the term foamer is used as a derogatory term for railfans.
The hobby extends to all aspects of rail transport systems. Railfans may have one or more particular concentrations of interest, such as:
- Railway locomotives and rolling stock
- Still-used or disused railroad lines, bridges, tunnels, stations and other infrastructure
- Subways and other local rail transit systems
- Railway history
- Railway photography
- Railway signalling
- Playing train simulators
- Railway modelling, both physical and virtual model railroading
- Collection of railway artifacts, in particular: tickets, timetables, railway paper, number plates, builders’ plates and railway crockery. Many items, such as timetables and railway paper (i.e. internal railway documents), are collected for study and not just as collectibles.
- Railway art or architecture
- Railway operations, economics or commerce
- Railway preservation/restoration
- Level junction. This is where the railfan can also be interested in the railroad or “grade” crossing signals.
- Monitoring railroad radio communications with a radio scanner.
The scope of the subject is so large that fans may additionally concentrate their interest on a particular country, town, operating company, field of operations or era in history – or a combination of any of the above.
Train photography is a common activity of railfans. Most railfans do their photographing from the 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 paranoia, because they are sometimes viewed as suspicious. In 2004, for example, the New York City Subway attempted to institute a photo ban. This was met with fierce opposition and was ultimately scrapped. Another example includes the Port Authority Trans–Hudson (PATH), which, unlike the New York City Subway, successfully implemented their photo ban, which is still in effect today, although this restriction predates the September 11 attacks. This has led to confiscations and arrests on the PATH system.
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).
- In the United Kingdom, photography is allowed at all stations on the National Rail network. 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. The Tyne and Wear Metro prohibits all photography without written permission from Nexus, the operators of the system. As of 2015, this is the only system in the UK where such a policy is in place.
- In Singapore, photography and filming are permitted in all MRT stations for non-commercial purposes during weekdays between 10 am and 4 pm.
- The Spanish RENFE railroad company used to ask for a permit, but since 2018 it is not needed. However, photographers may encounter some problems with security guards.
- In Greece, railway photography is permitted on all networks but railfans are frequently confronted by security guards.
- In Russia, railway photography is permitted on all networks 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. However, it could be prosecuted as a felony. The law was repealed by the Legislative Decree n°66 enacted on March 15, 2010.
- 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.
- In Indonesia, railway photography and filming can be performed in all stations and for all trains, although at times security guards will 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.
However, if people register for a special permit to take photos and videos with their professional camcorders, they are exempted from the bans. With proper registration, filming and photography are regarded as amateur enthusiast activity and thereby there is zero risks of danger.
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. 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 rolling stock of Southern Railways. 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.
Some trainspotters now use a tape recorder 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 websites aid information exchange. Railbuffs can maintain private computerized databases of spotting records as well. Radio scanners are common equipment for listening to railroad frequencies in the US to follow rail traffic.
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 modeling, drawing or photographing them.
The term “bashing” is used by railway enthusiasts to mean several different things. “Bashing” used on its own is a general term for a railway enthusiast’s trip, excursion or holiday involving train travel and observation. “Line bashing” is more focused, and would be an attempt to cover as much of a railway network as possible. This can also be called “track bashing” especially if the person wishes to try to cover individual sections of track such as crossovers and sidings, in addition to completing an “A to B” journey on each section of line. In the UK (especially), Germany, and to a lesser extent in other countries, railfans often use a special excursion train for railfans (usually known as a “railtour”) to cover freight-only railway lines in order to complete their coverage of a country’s rail network. “Shed bashing” is a term used by train spotters to describe going out to as many railway sheds (or depots) as possible. These were very popular in the 1950s and 1960s. As they required a permit and this could be hard to obtain some “shed bashers” were illegal. Another development from trainspotting (almost unique to the UK) is the “haulage basher” or locomotive haulage enthusiast
Many railway preservation groups run special trips for railfans using restored trains, often on “rare mileage” locations that do not see regular passenger service. These trips are both social events, as well as an opportunity for railfans to photograph unusual trains. Chasing a fantrip by road for the purposes of photography is often referred to as “motorcading” in Australia. 
Many railfans also collect “railroadiana” or “railwayana”. Railroadiana refers to artifacts from railroads and railroad operations and could include nearly anything to do with a particular railroad, including public or employee timetables, locomotive number boards, dining car china, passenger train tickets, tools and pieces of equipment such as lanterns, or sometimes items as big as train horns, or track speeders. Although few can afford the acquisition cost or the space for storage, some railfans collect full size rolling stock or locomotives.
Exploring abandoned railways
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.
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?]
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.
Origins of interest
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. 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.
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. In the United Kingdom the British Transport Police have asked trainspotters to report any unusual behaviour and activities at stations.
In the United States, concerns about terrorism have led to situations where railfans are followed or confronted by local law enforcement or transit police. This has also led to situations where certain transportation agencies have implemented photography bans systemwide.
The BNSF railway instituted the “Citizens for Rail Security” (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).
Network Rail, the British rail infrastructure owner and station operator, has produced guidelines for the behaviour and responsibilities of railway enthusiasts at its stations. 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.
Railfans have jargon that can be foreign to others:
- Glossary of North American railway terms
- Glossary of Australian railway terms
- Glossary of United Kingdom railway terms
- Glossary of New Zealand railway terms
- Anorak (slang)
- List of notable railfans
- List of railroad-related periodicals
- Rail terminology
- Rail transport modelling
- RR (2008 railfan film by James Benning)
- Sensible Train Spotting, the world’s first computer train spotting simulator
- Train whistle