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A Brief History of Raildate

Howard Sprenger was founding editor of Raildate for over 30 years before handing over to Matthew Shaw in September 2022. One of his tidying-up tasks before retirement was to write this history of Raildate.

I cannot say with any certainty when Raildate began, but I can say why.  I had got into the habit of looking through the Radio Times each week to see whether there was anything of railway interest coming up on TV and thought I might as well jot down whatever I found and send it to members of the Hursley Park Model Railway Society (HPMRS).  The society was a subsection of the IBM Club and owned a large model railway layout in the clubhouse at Hursley Park near Winchester, the home of IBM United Kingdom Laboratories Ltd.  As well as alerting members to forthcoming TV programmes, I added information about forthcoming events locally, and if there were any admin notices from the Committee to pass on to members, they were included as well.

This purpose had largely been served previously by our printed newsletter, which had started circulation around April 1979.  I have never seen the first edition, but the second was produced in June 1979 and at irregular intervals after that until June 1982, when it disappeared for a while.  The editor for the first seven editions was Rex Penney with Lawrence Hanney taking it through to number 14.

Edition number 15 came out in Autumn 1984, edited by Graham Mackenzie, who settled the newsletter down to a regular seasonal pattern of four issues a year.  This was not much use as a means of imparting news, and editions consisted mainly of articles from the membership supplemented by reprints of selected articles from newspapers and magazines.  Number 19 (Autumn 1985) signalled another change of editorship, with John Learman taking over when Graham was sent on assignment to the USA.  It wasn’t long before Graham was back, though, and he took over the reins again from number 23 (Autumn 1986).

From Winter 1989, the HPMRS Newsletter was renamed Smoke Rings, and in 1991, Graham found himself exiled again (this time to Basingstoke).  From number 44 (Winter 1991) therefore, Nick Robson moved into the editor’s seat, and took Smoke Rings through to its 50th and (what turned out to be) final issue in Summer 1993.

As we went through the 1980s, “online information” was starting to emerge as the way forward, and within IBM we were already communicating electronically via VNET.  To some extent, therefore, the change of name to Smoke Rings was a tacit acceptance of the fact that a quarterly hard-copy publication could not consider itself to be in any way a “newsletter”, and Raildate began to do what Smoke Rings could not.

As I say, I can’t be specific about when I first started sending Raildate to members, but the first recorded mention of it is at the Society’s Annual General Meeting in April 1990, when Rod Blakeman proposed a vote of thanks for it and the steady stream of information that it contained.  I reckon therefore that I probably first started putting it together sometime around mid-1989.

VNET ran on our various VM systems and WINVMB was where Raildate first saw the light of day.  VM files required an uppercase filename and filetype, with a maximum of eight characters each, so Raildate began as RAILDATE MEMO and was sent out every Friday to the HPMRS distribution list – all on VM, of course.  Being a green-screen system, there was no alternative to the in-built fixed-space font, and there was a maximum usable line-length of 73 characters.  Raildate still retains this format today, although somehow over the years, the nominal line-length has grown to 95 characters (often exceeded!)  As long as it was distributed within IBM, it carried the qualifier “IBM Management Approved”!

For four years, Raildate and Smoke Rings existed side by side, and the Winter 1991 edition of the latter included the first Raildate Roundabout, which was a round-up of items of interest that had appeared in the previous quarter’s RAILDATE MEMO.  This continued until Smoke Rings ceased publication after issue number 50.  By late 1994, IBM employees were starting to be connected to the then new Internet (I became connected on 30th November 1994) and from then on links to items on the Worldwide Web became an additional feature of RAILDATE MEMO – something that Smoke Rings could never have done, of course.  There wasn’t very much on the Web in those days, but as people began to explore the new technology, surfing the Web became an ideal work distraction!

A regular contributor from this time was a non-member of the HPMRS, Nick Wheat, and so for several years the section devoted to Web links was known as Nick Wheat’s Netwatch.  Some time later, I felt that some of the news items I was including warranted their own section and In the News was added.  The four sections from this time have continued ever since, and two versions were produced each week: an internal edition that included items aimed specifically at members of the society and an external version for friends outside IBM.

With the demise of Smoke Rings, I continued compiling the occasional round-up of links as Raildate Roundabout, but now it was sent out online.  Again, I’m not sure when the first of these was produced, but the earliest one on the Web archive of Raildate, created by Richard Walker, is dated December 1995.  These continued until June 2009 and can be seen (together with individual issues of Raildate between October 2003 and December 2009) at http://www.raildate.co.uk/

As IBM weaned itself off mainframe-attached 3270 terminals and onto desktop PCs and laptops, so RAILDATE MEMO had to leave WINVMB, the last edition being distributed from there on 16th January 1998.  From then on Raildate was compiled and distributed from Lotus Notes, and the TV and radio listings could be entered directly onto my laptop, rather than having to be written down on paper to be transferred to VM at work.

At this time, my thoughts turned to making Raildate more widely available as it seemed to me that to restrict it to the HPMRS membership of around 20 was not really justifying the effort that was going into it.  I had already been sending the external version to a few friends and I was increasingly getting requests from people who had heard about it and wanted to be added, so I began building up the distribution list of recipients outside IBM.  I also encouraged them to forward it to any other interested party as long as it was distributed in its original form.  Very soon, it had gone global, and I began receiving feedback from readers as far away as America and Australia, some of whom I was very pleased to visit in the ensuing years.

From around 2003, I began posting Raildate to the Historical Model Railway Society (HMRS) Yahoo discussion group, and this much broader circulation encouraged an influx of contributions from an even wider group of enthusiasts.  Richard Buckby, John Hillmer, Neil Kearns, Martin Miller, Ted Millward, Mike Price, Andrew Nummelin, Ralph Rawlinson, Alan Rushworth and Mike Wilcock all became regular contributors and many others send me stuff on an occasional basis.

My resignation from the HMRS meant that I had to consider how its members could continue to receive Raildate, if they wished, and by now I’d also managed to saddle myself with a large distribution list that I had to maintain every time anyone needed to be added (or removed) or changed their email address.  From 1st February 2008, therefore, Raildate acquired a dedicated Yahoo group, and that became the primary means of distribution.

Due to the retirement of most of its remaining members, the Hursley Park Model Railway Society disbanded and the last internal issue of Raildate was sent out on 1st April 2011.  From then on, only the external version was produced to be distributed via Yahoo.

On 2nd May 2014, at the suggestion of some members of the Yahoo group, a Raildate Facebook group was established so that members could comment on what appeared each week, although in practice this has rarely happened.  With the demise of Yahoo Groups, the Raildate group on that platform ceased to exist on 15th December 2020 and the last issue of 2020 became the first to be distributed on a new Groups.io platform, where is continues to be disseminated alongside the Facebook group.

That brings the Raildate story up to date.  I’ve been sending it out, pretty much every Friday for around 33 years, which means that with the occasional weeks with no edition due to holidays, over 1300 issues must have been launched onto an unsuspecting world.  It goes directly to around 500 subscribers (roughly 250 each on Facebook and Groups.io), and although I have no idea how many of them forward it, I know that it goes to other societies around the world as well as to individuals, so I reckon that at least 1,000 people receive it every week.

I’ve kept it simple throughout.  It started out as a list of TV and radio programmes and has moved with the times to become largely a list of links, but it has remained a text document with no pictures.

I’ve mentioned a number of contributors – to them and to those I haven’t named, I extend my sincere thanks, as I do to the HPMRS newsletter editors who went before me.  It really is a team effort.  People sometimes ask how I keep it up every week, and the answer is that I just dump the odd links that I come across into a file, together with a whole load of stuff that people are kind enough to send me – it’s just simple copy-and-paste job.  The most time-consuming bit is going through the Radio Times every week and noting down things that are of interest to me and possibly to others – especially since the proliferation of channels.  When I started, there were only five!  Even now, I restrict myself to those that are “free-to-air”, and then, only what I consider to be the “main” ones.

That’s how it began, and that’s how it’s stayed since 1989.  It has always been completely free with no adverts except for the occasional inclusion of information about forthcoming publications from Kestrel Railway Books – and even occasionally other publishers!

Howard Sprenger

17th July 2022