Sightings and Cycles, Patterns and Prediction


Since railfanning started, there has been a basic unit of reporting called 'the sighting'. The sighting can be defined as the information observed whilst viewing an event. In most cases, sightings are generally added to existing information. This information can come from other personal sightings or third party information. For the purposes of this text, this extra information will also be called grouped as a 'sighting'.

The sighting is a method used collect and assimilate information through sharing. It allows observable data to be assembled into a picture or pattern. From this pattern a better overall view can be obtained. In hunting, this allowed shared information to be used to capture or kill animals. In railfanning, sightings provide several functions:

  1. Assembly of data about unfolding events
  2. Validation of a planned or projected occurrence
  3. Status - by ego enhancement ( 'I saw it first ...') or as a 'bonding' to an event ('Yeah! I saw it too!)

The major disadvantage to sightings are:

  1. Reactive - they are a reactive response to an event
  2. Topical - they are very topical, very 'immediate'. The functions of SMS/phone/Internet allow a faster broadcast time into a distribution network
  3. Dependency - the event observed and the data passed on depends upon the knowledge base of the observer
  4. Biased - many observations can occur within certain time frames or geographical locations to the detriment of observable actions across the broader geographical rail scene
  5. Presumptive - what is presumed in the data and what extra information is required to understand the event from a future perspective?
  6. Relevance - Given that there are a large number of events in the railway daily 'life', what information is missing to provide a balanced report?
  7. Incomplete - time, date, direction,significance, equipment ID's missing, no colour scheme indicated, no external visual differences indicated (if any)

A sighting or 'report' is a response to an interesting event that is part of a much larger pattern or cycle. 

The sighting has many attributes though not all will be used. It is a discrete moment in time about an event. It is a snapshot of a larger complex set of events. A sighting can be likened to a single frame of a movie. Whilst the whole movie would be good to see, maybe we only get to see a few frames here and there. Sometimes a few sightings are enough to understand what is happening. A set of different sightings of the same event but at varying times is often enough to compile a story. The key 'sighting' attributes are:

A simple test is to quantify the 'sighting'. We can give one (1) point for each item we learn from or use as cross reference. We then deduct two (2) points for each item that is irrelevant. The sum of these values will show the importance of the sighting. In this regard I refer to all the information presented to the reader in describing and writing about the observation. The larger the negative value, the less there is of 'event' value.

Sightings enable us to 'fill the blanks' by adding more data to our existing knowledge. In some cases they can raise more questions which thereby assists our understanding. We use the observation and sighting to test our knowledge to validate all that we have learnt.

This knowledge can be used as building blocks for the following:



Writers note

This article was written in an attempt to show that 'sightings' can be much more than just casual observations. In thirty years of rail interest and vehicle research many sightings have been read that cover the 1890's to the 2000's period. The insights above are from my own personal observations and are my opinion.

Peter J. Vincent, March 2003