Dr Hannah Fry on the romance of the rails

Trains and timetables offer excitement too, says the mathematician as BBC4 goes Trainspotting Live

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So, trainspotting, live, on the telly. Isn’t there some paint we can watch dry instead?


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Trains are part of all our lives – part of our social and political history. And people feel romantically about them. I’m hoping we can turn what might sound quite mundane into something joyful. We won’t shy away from being nerdy.

But it’s all a bit nerdy, isn’t it?


There’s something really romantic about trains that appeals to all sorts of people from all walks of life. There are lots of people who enjoy trains who wouldn’t stand out as trainspotters.

Are you a secret trainspotter?

If I’m honest, I’ve never gone as far as standing on a platform recording train details, but trains are my favourite way of getting about. To the outsider it might seem a bit of a funny thing to find so much joy in, but if you peel back a layer, you add a new level of excitement.

Excitement?

I’m a mathematician, so in terms of moving passengers around the country there’s a wealth of mathematical ideas that go into producing a timetable. I hope we can dig into some of that.

Suddenly timetabling sounds interesting…

It is, it’s fascinating. It was the need to produce timetables back in the 1840s that helped to introduce standardised time across Britain.

Standardised time?

Before the railways came, the way you would work out time was, essentially, to use the village sundial. So what you would have is a clock that would give you a local time that everyone [in a city, town or village]
would use as their standard. The
problem is that when you have
this rail network spreading out
across Britain, you can’t have 
people’s locally set clocks determining the time. To minimise accidents, you have to be absolutely
 clear on what times trains are arriving
 and leaving stations. So that means everyone in the country has to use the same time.

But the rail network doesn’t seem very good at sticking to timetables now…


We’ll be trying to demonstrate the scale of the operation. How many trains there are, how many people you’re moving around and how complicated the whole business is. I’m not saying that trains always run perfectly, but to run as efficiently as they do is quite remarkable.

You recently made a Horizon programme on the mathematics of love. Did you benefit?

I was already engaged by the time I had the idea, so no, I didn’t track my fiancé down by using equations! I was past all of those difficult phases when I could have used it to my advantage.

Did maths come easily to you?

It was a slow process. Like trains, the more you know about maths, the more enjoyment you get. My mum made me do a lot of extra work – summer holidays working through textbooks. When I fell behind, the subject was less enjoy- able, but the moment I was working extra hard, it became most enjoyable of all. Now I totally live, eat and breathe maths.

Is it a gift?

A lot of people believe maths is a natural-born talent. I don’t think that’s true. You don’t need to be Michael Phelps to enjoy swimming.

Should there be more maths on TV?

There is always room for more fun stuff. A lot of the maths on TV is quite abstract, quite difficult to get your head around, whereas what gets me super-excited is the way maths is embedded in everything you do in your everyday life. Take trains for example…

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Trainspotting Live is 8pm Mon – Wed on BBC4.