Train stations are transitory places where people are always leaving or arriving. And in their hurry to board the train to their destination, passengers may often miss the sight of a person or a group of people, pen and notebook or camera in hand, looking closely at trains as they pass by, jotting down something. This person (or group), who would have probably been standing around in the station for hours, are a special breed of rail buffs - the trainspotters or railfans. You may think ennui and boredom and no man's land when you think of rail platforms. Yet for this select group railway stations are magical kingdoms. What is trainspotting then? Urban Dictionary explains the popular hobby as - "observing trains and logging the numbers. Generally involves standing around in bad weather, watching the tracks. A British hobby. Originated from the British phenomenon of train geeks waiting on train platforms, notebooks in hand, recording the types and numbers of trains coming into the station."
We caught up with trainspotter Jerin George who spoke about the many journeys he has made while chasing trains across India.
It all started with the British Railway series Thomas the Tank Engine. It was one of my favourite shows as a kid. Also the countless number of rail trips I've conducted between Chennai and Cochin as a kid made me eager to know more about the Indian Railways. So I decided to capture pictures of trains. I started the journey with a tiny camera which was gifted by my dad. Sadly, neither the camera nor the pictures exist as of today. One of my first journeys that I have memories of was on the New Delhi Chennai Rajdhani during the summer of 2007. My intention was to experience the luxury of the Rajdhani Express. But all along the way, all I did was capture images of different locomotives, both diesel and electric. I also remember clicking pictures of many locos standing alone on the sidings whereas the others zoomed past our train with express trains to New Delhi.
When the trip came to an end at Chennai, I realised that I hadn't experienced the Rajdhani completely. Instead, I had only clicked hundreds of blurred pictures of trains on my camera! The very first thing that caught my attention was the different liveries which adorned the beautiful Diesel Locos of Indian Railways. Every loco shed has a unique livery. and we railfans also have different names for these liveries.
My most memorable trainspotting journeys
It was mid summer of 2017 and I was on a family vacation in Goa. I decided to travel to a beautiful station called Seraulim/Suravali which was very famous for trainspotting. Suravali is a tiny, serene station just outside Madgaon and has a good variety of trains thundering past at top speed. But I was disappointed at the end of the day as I couldn't spot an ALCo diesel engine (the one which chugs). Most trains were hauled by an EMD loco which is a modern electric-diesel loco which is much more reliable for the railways. I was determined to listen to the chugging of the ALCo and their distinctive horns which makes for some fine music to a railfan's ears!
So I set out on one more journey to another station called Kulem in order to spot the Howrah Vasco Amaravati Express which is hauled by an ALCo. And I was rewarded for my efforts. The train entered Kulem with two of those colourful engines chugging their heart out! I returned to my hotel, satisfied, after capturing the beauty in dozens of pictures. I did not regret going the extra mile for these beautiful ALCos which are almost on the verge of extinction with the increasing modernisation of railways.
These journeys chasing a train has been a thread in my life. The farthest I've travelled to capture a train was to West Bengal in 2019. The New Jalpaiguri Shatabdi Express was the fastest diesel train on the Indian Railway network at that time. It was the last few days with a diesel loco as the entire route was being electrified. Unfortunately, my efforts to capture that train were in vain due to a delay in one of the trains I was onboard.
My favourite engines
My all-time favourite engine has to be the WDM2 which used to commonly haul the Chennai Trivandrum Mail. On almost every trip to Kerala, I used to go right upto the front of the train to watch the engine change from electric to diesel, which usually is the WDM2 which was originally built in Pennsylvania!
Sadly, none of those locomotives exist any more.
What goes into planning a trainspotting trip
The first thing I do is get advice from someone who has already been to that location. We check if it's safe enough to carry our costly equipments. Next, we check for tickets. Sometimes we take AC class, but mostly it's a sleeper to really enjoy the journey. Next, we look for the best spotting location, we check for directions on the map as well.
Most trainspotters use a point-and-shoot camera which is best to capture the train from a very long distance. It is also easy to find out the loco of the train from a long distance with such cameras. Nowadays, mobile cameras with high zooming capacity have mostly replaced them. We also use a camcorder to record videos and compile them together. Nowadays, I only take my GoPro to record long journeys and a point-and-shoot camera to click pictures. Mostly, I avoid using my mobile camera as it can be easily snatched by thieves.
Trainspotting comes with many interesting encounters, and not just the human kind. Once while travelling on the Mandovi Express, a monkey had snatched my khichdi from the platform seat while I was busy adjusting my camera to capture a passing train. I could not decide if I should continue recording or chase the monkey to get back my khichdi back!
I would say a train journey wins hands down above any other mode of transportation
My most memorable train journey was onboard the Mandovi Express back in 2010. The journey through Konkan Railways was the most fascinating part. Also this train is known as the food king as it has one of the best catering services on board. I also remember an unreserved train journey between Tiruchirapalli and Karaikudi where the changing landscape, and rural life had really amazed a city boy like me. I also love the camaraderie that builds up between strangers on a train. On a journey between Gokarna and Mangalore, I had got to meet a few travellers from France and we spent the time recounting our rail stories. Then there was a high speed journey between Chennai and Bangalore on the Double Decker Express. It was indeed a unique experience to watch the world pass by from the lower deck of that train.One of the best times I have spent was when I got to visit the Railway Workshop at Golden Rock, Trichy for training. It was a dream come true as I got to see a variety of locomotives and coaches which had come for their regular maintanence.
I recommend you check out these train routes and stations at least once
I love the Konkan railway route starting from Mangalore and ending near Mumbai. One can spot the Arabian sea on one side and the mighty Western Ghats on the other. It is every railfan's dream to do this beautiful section at least once in their lifetime. Also, one gets to see trucks travelling on a train on this route! It is a unique Roll-On-Roll-Off service by Konkan Railway which allows truckers to save fuel.
Another route I particularly like is the Trichy Rameshwaram section which passes through different landscapes, the most fascinating part being the Pamban Rail Bridge which connects mainland India with Rameshwaram Island.
One of the best railway stations I've been to is Muthalamada on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border. The banyan trees on either side of the track bring enormous beauty to the station. Spotting trains at this station is an awesome experience.
I also like to visit the train station at Melattur which is also a scenic railhead on the Shoranur Nilambur line. The tiny little station which does not even have a stoppage had made it to the news during the lockdown period for being the most beautiful station. Trains are rarely spotted at this station nowadays as Indian Railways has reduced the number of services due to poor patronage.