When Trainspotting Live, which aired on BBC4 this week was announced, it was described as "Springwatch for rail enthusiasts". It was designed not for the hard core spotter permanently camped at the end of a platform at Clapham Junction or Crewe, but for those who have an interest in trains that doesn't border on obsession, and an attempt to throw off the "nerd in an anorak" image rail enthusiasm has. A commendable aim, so I watched with interest to see what transpired.
Springwatch has been a phenomenal success. It took natural history from the rain forests and African savannas into viewer's back gardens, showing that what was going on in front of your eyes was worth sitting up and taking notice of. As a result more bird boxes and feeders than ever are in back gardens, there are organised barn owl watching walks, toad crossing patrols etc etc as people have realised you don't have to be David Attenborough to enjoy, or interact with nature.
Key to that initial success were the presenters. Bill Oddie and Kate Humble, both experts in their field, who were able to explain the basics of what was presented to the viewer without patronising anyone, and just as importantly some humour. There was banter as to if Bill's tits or Kate's tits would fledge first etc and viewers felt really involved. Simon King was despatched to a remote island to live with seagulls or red deer to demonstrate the other side of nature watching - cold, wet, windy and hours of waiting to see what you want.
So obviously it was assumed that the BBC would find a couple of presenters to ignite the same kind of enthusiasm for the railways. Peter Snow, former Newsnight presenter and "Swingometer" operator seemed completely lost at Didcot Railway Centre, and reminded me of a well meaning grandad trying to be enthusiastic about his grandchild's latest computer game, without having the faintest idea what is going on. That is unfortunate if you are reading texts and tweets out from people who DO know what they are talking about on live television, as every gap in knowledge is and was exposed to almost cringeworthy proportions, "Spirit of Sunderland vinyls - whatever that is". Had Bill Oddie not known what plumage is it's unlikely Springwatch would have had the same success.
Teamed up with Peter Snow was Hannah Fry, a mathematician, who promised us to go through the huge amount of maths and numbers involved in the railway. Except she didn't. The first night was spent working out the maximum speed a train number could be spotted from 20 yards. Turns out to be around 680mph but doesn't take into account speed blurring........Yes ok that's useful to know then. The second programme was all about torque - a word I have never heard spoken on the railway before - and the difference in torque between steam and diesel locomotion. The third programme did try to delve into the maths involved in timetabling, but spent time looking at unintelligible graphs rather than taking specific examples.
None of those will have sparked enthusiasm in anyone new. I was expecting total miles of track on the network, number of sleepers per mile, maximum train/freight lengths, how many trains operate in the country per day, how many stations there are, the cost of maintaining the railway per mile, the difference between overhead line and 3rd rail traction etc etc - information relevant to today's railway. Hannah did her bit competently, but showed no more knowledge of the railway than her co-presenter did.
The word "Live" was also taken a bit loosely. Springwatch have always said if something was pre-recorded or filmed a bit earlier etc. On the first show Trainspotting showed some footage "just come in" of a convoy of new gbrf Class 66's being delivered which completely threw the poor guy at Didcot. Not surprising really as I had seen one of them at Ipswich a month ago! That made the front page of The Sun and a grovelling apology ensued at the start of Wednesday's programme. In fact very little was actually live, and quite often what was planned to be live either failed to materialise or sneaked into a platform while someone was talking. Dick Strawbridge was enthusiastic to the point of gushing on location, trying to make the very people the programme set out not to aim at interesting, whilst not making anything very clear. Tim Dunn was the roving reporter, up in Mallaig to see the Jacobite Steamer at just about the least spectacular spot on the line on Monday, in Carlisle to see Class 37's on Tuesday, except when it arrived they decided to cut away before anyone could hear the engine, and for some unknown reason at Stafford for the 3rd programme to see Class 325 mail trains, which had a disproportionate exposure in the programme. It was by chance that 66779, the last 66 built made an appearance, and no one appeared to have done any research, or timetable reading to see what operated where and when.
Everyday there was a daily task for viewers - a "Holy Grail" as Peter Snow said as often as possible. Monday was to see the "Flying Banana" - a Network Rail Measurement Train topped and tailed by HST125 power cars. This one train was allegedly spotted everywhere from Kings Cross to Inverness! On Tuesday the task was the mail trains, rather interestingly not realising that between 2000 - 2100 most of the mail trains are either at Willesden or Warrington being loaded up..... On Wednesday it was Virgin East Coast Class 91 91110 which is dedicated to the fallen. It failed to show up.
To start new enthusiasts off, though, there were easier tasks. Monday was devoted to Class 66 locos, or Sheds as they are known by enthusiasts. Although I personally can't stand the things they can be seen on virtually every line in the country so a good choice to use as bait to hook new spotters. On Tuesday you had to spot a Class 43, otherwise known as a 125. Not so good if you don't live on either the East Coast, Midland or Great Western mainlines. Wednesday we were encouraged to spot an EMU, acronym for Electrical Multiple Unit, something that Peter Snow seemed to find highly amusing yet unfathomable at the same time. Of course no one realised that the Class 325 mail trains we had to spot the night before are actually, erm, EMU's!
However, in an effort to show viewers you don't have to be obsessed to be a rail enthusiast, Peter Snow had a daily guest. On Monday a chap who has photographed every station in Britain, on Tuesday a man who collects engine plates and has his house covered in them, and on Wednesday a prolific collector of tickets. No obsession required there then!
Of course the lack of knowledge of the railway network manifested itself rather sadly in some of the texts and tweets read out. A Pendolino was apparently spotted in Wick - which is roughly 250 miles from the nearest electrified line. An HST 125 spotted in Carlisle, which is on the West Coast Mainline and doesn't get them. Another EMU was seen on the Sudbury branch - yes it's not electrified, and a Class 45 EMU was spotted somewhere - a 45 is a massive loco! I'm not sure the same lack of basic knowledge of the network would have been allowed on Springwatch.
But above all the programme failed in its mission to demonstrate you DON'T have to be standing at the end of a platform, notebook clutched in hand, to have an interest in the railways. It can be a picnic in the woods by a line, sitting on the wall at Dawlish (if you don't cheat and watch the spectacular Dawlish Beach cameras), from the comfort of your own home by watching the superb Railcam. It didn't demonstrate how solitary the hobby can be, how theraputic - an escape from the trials of normal life can be, that travelling by train for pleasure can be so rewarding if you don't have a deadline to meet. That it's not all about train numbers, just being in the right place at the right time to hear a 37 roar past, or see a Eurostar (of which there was no mention at all or HS1) come across the Medway Bridge doing 186mph. Seeing a steamer on the mainline bringing back childhood memories for so many people. It isn't all about taking numbers in a notebook on a platform. It really isn't.
There was also the opportunity to explode urban myths about the railway. A practical demonstration of the effect leaves can have for example. I'll never forget the first time I saw black rails on the line between Tonbridge and Redhill, and I finally understood what it was all about. Everyone is held up by signal failures, so an explanation of those would have been useful, how points operate etc etc - things that affect ordinary people on a day to day basis. That would have interested a lot more people than the difference in torque between steam and diesel.
However, it was good that finally a programme focusing on the trains themselves was aired. At least we didn't see Peter Snow boarding a 156, an aerial shot of a 170, then seeing him alight from a Voyager like you do in Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys. The more exposure railways get the better, but as a programme aimed at getting more people involved in railway enthusiasm I think it missed the target by a considerable distance.
I hope a second series is commissioned, but get presenters who know something about the railway, make it known there are sites such as Railcam and Dawlish Beach that people unable to get around the country can use to spot trains from their living room, go to locations other than busy stations, talk about aspects of the railway that affect everyone, and above all plan it better, using people who know what they are talking about to plan what is featured and spoken about. There is a big potential there, but the lasting impression I got was lack of preparation, rehearsal, and basic knowledge. It could, and should have been so much better.