What is it with Britons and trains, anyway? Hardly just the title of collection of Irvine Welsh’s stories of heroin and degradation, the term “trainspotting” actually refers to a real, and fervently pursued hobby; trainspotters exist, just as do birdwatchers and sports fans. In terms of obsession with the design and operational minutiae of their own trains, Britain falls second only to the even more densely rail-laden Japan. But we Americans, possessed of a train system few would call robust, can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it. Perhaps we just need to hear it from the mouth of Michael Palin, writer, comedian, television host, Python — and avowed trainspotter. Most of Palin’s fans know him first through his characters in the Flying Circus: the shopkeeper, Luigi Vercotti, Ken Shabby, and the most memorable Gumbys, to name but a few. But some of us know him best as the central traveler of the globe-spanning television documentaries in which he’s starred since 1989. Around the World in Eighty Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle, Michael Palin’s Hemingway Adventure, Sahara, Himalaya, New Europe, and now Brazil with Michael Palin. Here we have a man who knows how best to get from point A to point Z, and all in between.
But before all of those shows came Palin’s first episode of the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys, a long-running series whose very existence speaks to the vitality of Britain’s train-related enthusiasm. 1980’s “Confessions of a Trainspotter”, viewable at the top of this post, follows Palin as he makes his gleeful way from London to Kyle of Lochalsh in northwestern Scotland on a series of trains fast and slow, long and short, old and new. This established him as a television traveler; fourteen years later, he returned to the program for “Derry to Kerry”, where he traced his roots along “that best-kept of all transport secrets, the Irish railway line.” “Is it just us who are like this?” Palin asks. “The British, I mean. Are there any trainspotters in Sicily? Do Belgians go misty-eyed with the thought of seeing the 12:16 to Antwerp? Do Swedes save up all year for a Hasselblad to photograph a Stockholm to Gothenburg coal train cresting a 1‑in-57 gradient?” Perhaps the most definitive answer comes from a fellow rail fan he meets mere minutes later. Palin asks the man if he has always loved trains. “Very nearly,” he replies. “There was a short period when I became interested in girls. Eventually, I got married and went back to railways.”