‘I find myself choked up with the emotions’: TikTok’s trainspotter sensation Francis Bourgeois

Celebrity and trainspotter are not words you see together very often. But Francis Bourgeois’ unique style and infectious enthusiasm is proving to be a ‘hellfire’ hitHow fast can you run?” Francis Bourgeois asks, not waiting for an answer. It’s 9am and we’re b…

How fast can you run?” Francis Bourgeois asks, not waiting for an answer. It’s 9am and we’re barely done with bleary-eyed introductions on platform 5 at Willesden Junction in London. Now the 22-year-old is legging it towards the exit, weaving through the throngs of Thursday- morning commuters. He’s into the ticket hall, through the barriers, down the street and up a grotty roadside staircase. In the centre of a footbridge, he comes to a halt. Bourgeois catches his breath and breaks into a smile – proper ear-to-ear grin – as he looks over the crisscrossing railway tracks sprawling towards the city ahead.

“Last night I did a lot of planning,” he says, “trying to find this morning’s best London train action. And passing through Willesden now are your standard passenger trains, and aggregate and intermodal freight services, but also…” he cuts himself off, hearing something in the distance. “There it is,” he says, as a train appears on the horizon right on cue. “It’s the British Pullman,” he informs me, “one of the most luxurious trains in the UK today.”

As it passes below, the TikTok trainspotter – real name Luke Nicolson – whirs into action. Today he’s not recording, but remains as animated as in any of his videos. “It’s hauled by a class 67,” he explains; “each carriage has a different name (Audrey, Vera), and inside has unique wooden carvings.” Bourgeois looks on transfixed, a picture of pure, unadulterated joy.

It’s this shtick that has turned him into the most unlikely of social media sensations: videos of the 22-year-old traversing the nation’s train lines have made him a certified celebrity to millennials and Gen-Zs alike. The earnest railway appreciation clips he posts online (to his almost 5m followers) attract huge numbers of viewers. Often with a Go-Pro strapped to his forehead, Bourgeois is exhilarated by what he sees – honking trains make him break into uncontrollable giggles. What most might consider mundane leaves him with a sensory overload.

“Oh my God… Holy shit!” he yells, arms akimbo. “Look down there, that’s really rare!” Beneath us, a train is trundling along the line. “Usually there are only two locomotives on that service. This time there are four. All in the same livery. It’s verging on impossible. Fuck!” He takes a moment to catch his breath.

On paper, his success makes little sense: trainspotting is hardly a hobby associated with broad public appeal. But, 18 months into posting, he now has his own Channel 4 web series and a book about to hit the shelves. The likes of Thierry Henry, Joe Jonas and popstar Rosalía have already joined him on his adventures. And brand Bourgeois is also distinctly high-fashion. Today’s he’s donning grey cords and a vintage Missoni jumper from his collection; Gucci was one of the first brands he partnered with. At 6ft 3in, he could well end up on the catwalk. Instinctively, it doesn’t add up. That’s precisely why today he’s taking me out spotting. I want to see him in action to be certain it’s not all a carefully constructed character act.

“It’s hard to describe the appeal of trains,” Bourgeois accepts, characteristically thoughtful. “But it triggers so many points in my brain. You get a rumble, then a clap of the exhaust; the turbo-chargers screaming. It’s tapping into the side of my brain that loves electronic music. I get goosebumps down one side of my body: right arm, right leg, right side of my neck. I find myself choked up by the emotions.

“Imagine the feeling you get at a massive football game or concert, and everyone around you is losing their mind.” There, he says, you feel it’s OK to let go – to scream and shout – because everyone else is. “I’ve come to realise trains make me feel that way. Trains are my football; my gig; my hit. They stimulate me in this inexplicable way.”

There’s also, he adds, the thrill of the chase. “Yes, trains are predictable,” he says. “That taps into a part of my brain that enjoys predictability. But there’s also the mayhem of it: running for a train. Unexpected arrivals. There are so many juxtapositions; so much energy.”

“Right,” Bourgeois says, during a lull in activity. “It’s a bit further afield, but if you’re up for the journey then it’s going to go absolutely mental at about quarter to 12 in Bedford. There should be four good services coming through, and it only takes an hour.”

Heading back towards the platform, Bourgeois gives me a lowdown on the lingo. Already I’m struggling to keep up with the technical train talk. “Livery is the paint job, the aesthetic,” he explains. “Thrash is when the diesel locomotives open up and make their heavy sound.” Clag is the exhaust; tones are the sounds of a train’s horn. “And hellfire is an expression of real joy and elation. I’m hoping that’s what I’ll be shouting in a couple of hours from now.” The only rule, my guide is clear, is the etiquette when asking a driver to honk for you. “Always wave with one hand,” Bourgeois says. “Two hands means stop. And never do an arm pump. That’s tonewanking, shunned by the community.”

We board a train to West Hampstead, where we’ll change for a service to Bedford. Today Bourgeois lives in Battersea, his bedroom overlooking 12 railway tracks. “The estate agent had never had someone ask to be shown places near a train line before.” The footbridge where we’d just stood, however, is a stone’s throw from the house he grew up in. Neither parents could drive a car, so the station was central to everyday life. “I used to ask my parents to take me there on weekends,” he says, “His primary school playground backed on to the train line and at break time he’d scale the climbing frame for the best view of whatever was passing through. A model railway was his prized possession from the age of four. “I’m not sure why,” comes his reply, when I ask what entranced him. “It’s just how my brain is wired.”

When he was six, the family left London and, as a teenager in Somerset, trains took a back seat. “I had zero mates. For the first couple of years, it was just me and my model railway. I started to BMX, mountain bike, go to the skate park,” he says. “I wasn’t happy, but ‘cooler’ things took precedence.” He flogged the model railway, only watching train videos on YouTube when nobody was around.

We change trains at West Hampstead. Passersby stop Francis and ask for photos. Each time another train passes, he identifies the model before it appears. “You get to know the sounds,” he says, as we board our next service. “An idling class 66 goes dingdingdingdingding, and as it powers up it goes dodododododo.” Another, he adds, makes the noise of a “digital clucking turkey”. Those which speed past the station elicit visceral reactions, Bourgeois quite literally shivering in delight.

At university in Nottingham, he studied mechanical engineering. “And that’s where the big change happened,” he says. “I unclipped my wings. I saw people who didn’t conform and learned it could be cool to be different.” Supportive friends encouraged him to indulge his interests. Online and IRL, Bourgeois then found his trainspotting community. Then lockdown hit and he was once again Somerset-bound.

“My parents always encouraged my brother and I to be creative,” he says, “so we made a TikTok. The first thing we uploaded was me in Frome station seeing a train and asking the driver how his day had been.” He thought little of it. In early 2021, he returned to university midway through third year, after Covid restrictions were lifted. He continued to post, gaining modest traction, on the advice of university career types, switching to his Bourgeois pseudonym.

“I was applying for my fourth-year work placement,” he explains, “and the university staff told me potential employers might search my name. I didn’t want to have to worry about that, I’d been to a Hauser & Wirth exhibition in Somerset and saw some work by Louise Bourgeois.” Francis Bourgeois was born, while Luke was hired by Rolls-Royce for the year ahead. “I didn’t think it would get to a point where anyone would know me by it. It’s not a character. But I quite like it now – when someone shouts Francis it’s not so overwhelming – I know what to expect.”

Then last April, Bourgeois uploaded another unassuming video. Dressed in vintage National Rail garb, he stood on a bridge, and asked the driver to honk down below. “Suddenly it got millions of views,” he says. “I went to the pub that evening and couldn’t believe what was happening. Someone in the pub garden yelled my name. Then a table of blokes – a hockey team – clocked me and started chanting, ‘Francis! Francis!’” The name stuck, while his numbers kept climbing. “Then it kept on happening. I couldn’t believe how rapidly it spread. I still can’t believe it.”

In the end, Bourgeois never finished the year at Rolls-Royce. The offers rolling in were too good to miss. “I was turning down opportunities because I was stuck at work,” he recalls. “These were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I realised it was probably time to throw myself in.” It’s a decision, he says, his parents fully supported. Still, he’s completing a module independently, allowing him to graduate.

Any doubts over Bourgeois’ authenticity are put to bed after a few hours in his company. Soaking up the September sun on a quiet Bedford platform, he’s deep in conversation with fellow assembled enthusiasts. I sit and listen – not the faintest idea what’s happening. High Alphas? Ballasts? HSTS and Loram?

“We’re sensitive to preconceptions,” he says, alone again. “Whenever I put something out, I’m conscious about how I’m presenting my community – it’s a huge responsibility.” Initially, he worried about hostility from those more protective of their passion. “I used to be in forums and groups online, but a small proportion of people there didn’t like what I was doing. They felt I was taking the piss,” he says, audibly pained, “or taking something that we all often hold quite closely to ourselves into such a public domain.” Thankfully, he says, the vast majority of spotters have been more than supportive.

Accusations he’s not for real, Bourgeois says, are difficult to swallow. “I don’t mind too much when people question me,” he says, “it doesn’t make sense: young train-spotter puts camera on head and laughs at trains. Maybe it’s absurd. But I struggle when people say I’m a fake or a fraud. I’m literally just going out and having a good time. Possibly it’s hard to comprehend how good I feel about trains; how I can feel this good full stop. But it’s just who I am.”

That’s precisely the appeal. His delight is infectious. An antidote to the misery, bad news and superficial #sponcon endless scrolling otherwise offers up. “It could really be anything,” he suggests. “I’m showing my passion, and people tap into the feeling of being in the zone, losing yourself in something. That’s what you see in my videos; the pure happiness that I feel is fun to watch.” Bourgeois hopes his success might encourage others to be prouder of their more peculiar passions and niche hobbies. He checks his phone again. “Holy shit,” he yells, “the next train is 37418! It’s 37418!” He’s hyped, leg-tapping in anticipation, then clocks that I’m not quite following. “It’s a class 37 train, which are all very special,” he says, “my favourite diesel locomotive. But this one specifically is hellfire. I’ve watched it online and tried to chase it before, but I’ve never actually seen it with my own eyes.”

And with that we’re off, following this train’s replacement driver across Bedford Station. A handful of passengers and station staff try to grab Bourgeois’ attention, but he’s in the zone. It’s just after midday as the train pulls in, Bourgeois parks himself on the far end of the platform. It’s here we’ll get the best whack of thrash as it pulls off. After a brief stop, the train edges forward. There’s loud rattling and rumbling; a deep hit of bass-y engine. I look over to Bourgeois, tears filling his eyes. I ask how he’s feeling, but get no answer: he’s elsewhere, overwhelmed and lost in the moment. Despite his best efforts at explanation, I’m still not entirely certain where this euphoria is drawn from. But watching someone feel free to be consumed by total jubilation? Well, that’s pure hellfire.

The Trainspotter’s Notebook by Francis Bourgeois is published on 27 October. Trainspotting with Francis Bourgeois, produced by Untold Studios, is available on Channel 4’s YouTube Channel

Styling by Hope Lawrie; grooming by Brady Lea at Premier using Patricks S2 Shine Pomade and 111 Skin

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