"Everyone together, jumbled up": Why are so many left-wing men obsessed with trains?

British railways might seem like a niche interest. So why are young men interested in left-wing politics often also obsessed with timetables and Pacers?

August 29, 2019
Is it the left-wing politics that leads to an interest in trains—or vice-versa? Photo: Prospect composite
Is it the left-wing politics that leads to an interest in trains—or vice-versa? Photo: Prospect composite

“Railways are conservative,” Peter Hitchens once wrote. “They are conservative because they help to conserve countryside, and because they are, when well run, a disciplined service requiring loyalty and dedication from their workers, not unlike the armed forces.

He went on: “by giving a centre to towns and cities, they promote cohesion and discourage shapeless ribbon development and the atomisation of society which follows when everyone relies on the car for transport.”

A few hundred young men would disagree.

Though it never would have been a surprise to find that people following Westminster closely also happened to enjoy an occasional afternoon of trainspotting, political discourse moving online has shown just how strong the correlation between the two interests is. On social media, where communities form around specific political views, the love of trains has become a synecdoche for a certain political leaning.

More specifically: if a Twitter account belongs to a left-wing man in his twenties or thirties, and this man tweets about Labour politics often, it is almost certain that he will, at some point, passionately tweet about trains as well.

As the quote above points out, it was never obvious that a fondness for transport would translate into involvement in left politics so often. Still, as Twitter user Simon Alvey puts it, “Liking trains is in the left-wing man starter kit.” The question is, then: which came first for those men? The infrastructural chicken or the socialist-adjacent egg?

For 27-year-old Patrick, the former provided a slippery slope towards the latter: “Being into trains means you've got to be into politics at least a little bit,” he said. “With the way Britain's rail system is set up, sooner or later you'll end up thinking about government franchising, infrastructure spending and things like that.”

“I spent a lot of time on huge long forum arguments about whether or not such and such a town should have a direct train to London—which is essentially the ‘left behind towns’ concept but in rail form.”

Bob, 25, had a similar experience; his dad was a trainspotter until he met his mum, and took him to see trains from a young age. “A lot of these steam train events, the kind of museums which specialise in restoring old steam trains, are by necessity harking back to the age of nationalised rail, the golden age of which was supposedly before the Beeching cuts—when my small village did have a train station,” he explained.

“As a child, loving these enormous loud, steaming metal things, I was surrounded by the liveries of British Rail and a lot of nostalgia about the Good Old Days.”

“Years before I would have identified with any political label, I instinctively felt 'Nationalisation Good, Privatisation Bad.'”

For 24-year-old Adam, the awakening came in the form of his grandfather buying him train models as a child (“it sadly blossomed from there”), with the left-wing politics swiftly following.

“I think it's the collective nature of train travel—everyone together, jumbled up,” he said. “Lots of the great train projects were embarked upon by the state, and there's something romantic to both socialism and train travel, but also futuristic.”

Others could not necessarily remember which passion came first, but definitely agreed that both were, in their minds, entirely linked. According to Ido, 21, “trains epitomise quite a lot of left-wing values: they are inherently collective, as opposed to the individualism of the car; they usually require the state to take a leading role in developing them; they can be subsidised so as to provide accessible travel to all in a way that isn't really the same as with cars.”

While this all makes sense, it still fails to explain how trains went from a niche area of interest for some to a common interest on social media for so many young men.

For Sean, 20, “it’s a continuation of the culture of teenage boys in anoraks standing on platforms from the 60s and 70s”—which is a fair point, but doesn’t seem to tell the whole story.

Given that social media tribes often end up being created around mutual interests, and that people are likely to try and showcase their best (or coolest) possible selves online, it seems odd that a love of trains was the one trait most ripe for becoming the great common denominator.

Or does it? 34-year-old Harry has a solid hypothesis: “I guess, in the circles of left-wing Twitter, trains are relatively uncontroversial? It’s hard to get ‘cancelled’ for being a trainspotter.”

It feels like a good theory: as may not be surprising given it is full of people who spend a lot of time on the internet discussing the ins and outs of British politics, political Twitter is divided into endless factions, most of which end up fighting among themselves as well as other factions all day long. Even the blandest and absurd of topics can also become a near site-wide row, as the casualties from “Should Fruit And Vegetables Be Kept In The Fridge?” day and “Did Newsnight Photoshop Corbyn’s Hat?” week will remember.

As a result, managing to find an interest that connects you to others without immediately antagonising them is rare and must be cherished, and trains happens to be one of them.

That is has become a mostly male pursuit online is also unsurprising; as with every nerdy topic discussed on social media, women can find it hard to show their interest without being confronted with a hostile community.

“I think we are still living at a point where men are more encouraged to be open about their nerdy pursuits, and there’s a long history of men in geeky areas pushing women out”, says Harry. “I suspect there’s some self-censorship happening with transit-curious women out there; you don’t want to end up with a load of men in your direct messages alternately hitting on you and testing your credentials.”

He may well be right, which means that a feminist takeover of the left-wing, train-enthusiast community is long overdue.

Or, as the slogan doesn’t quite say: a woman’s place is on platform 12, just on time for a sighting of the Flying Banana.