I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.
I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy. I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.
I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.
After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.
The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.
I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.
She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”
Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.
“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”
Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.
“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”
Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.
I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.
We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.