Francis Bourgeois is walking down the street towards us, a long arm waving slowly above his head, a grin fixed solidly on his face. It is raining horribly — real February rain — with the vague pre-symptoms of Storm Eunice or Franklin or Gertrude or whoever swirling about ominously, and everyone in the crew talking nervously and knowingly about the weather.
We could have ‘sent a car’, I suppose. That’s what most A-listers and their publicists demand (though the taxonomy of usual celebrity doesn’t apply to Francis — in fact, it might never particularly apply again.) But it would have felt somehow obscene, like collecting Lewis Hamilton on a penny farthing, or inviting Greta Thunberg onto your Gulfstream for some panda ribeye. For Francis — as you and 3.6 million others may have noticed — only one form of transport really cuts the mustard.
And just after we say hello — and I say “sorry about the weather” and “lovely badge” — he says he’s perfectly happy, actually, as he’s just walked from Sloane Square station and was pleased to see a certain train, or a certain engine, or a certain something there — a 445? a 97b? a 166? — and he smiles an excited, conspiratorial smile, as if recalling the sighting of a wild beast or a remaining member of the Beatles.
The one question that people tended to ask me after the shoot, when I mentioned clunkily that I’d met Francis Bourgeois earlier that week, was some hopeful variant of “is he for real?” or “please tell me it’s not just an act.” (Santa Claus was hard enough, their eyes said. Surely not Francis, too.) I hope I can now report, with some authority and not-a-little relief, that Francis Bourgeois is the real deal in every conceivable sense. The genuine article. The very thing. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Except for the name, of course. That’s a bit of a fabrication. The man millions know as Francis Bourgeois came up with his moniker after going to see an exhibition by the artist Louise Bourgeois at the Tate. (The ‘Francis’ bit, if I recall correctly, is just because he likes France and the way they do trains — and quite right too.) His real name — as has been reported before — is Luke Nicolson. (He was applying for jobs when he started TikTokking, so he thought it wise to adopt an alias.)
But most of us, of course, simply know him as ‘That Train Guy’: the giddy, joyful, completely wholesome enthusiast who has done more to alter the public opinion of trainspotting and of TikTok than perhaps anyone else on the planet.
“I THINK JOE JONAS JUST WANTED TO EXPERIENCE SOME JOY!”
You know the videos by now: the head-mounted fisheye lens stretching his features into some beaming cartoon character — eyes wide, nose dominant, chin non-existent — as a train thunders past, sounding its tooting ‘tones,’ and Francis explodes into raptures: part puppy dog, part Belieber, all wonderful. (Often, there is a pithy and winning summary at the end: “Goosebumps all over my body…”)
It’s the noises, he says, that really get him. They bring forth the peels and squeals that most of us left behind in childhood, and which seem so genuine that, to some, they must be fake. As he’s getting his hair done, I ask Francis why he gets so excited at these moments — but really I’m asking, as we all are, how I can get some of that for myself. He explains that it’s the same as going to a concert or festival and hearing the booming bass and soaring melodies, and feeling the bodies all around you experiencing the same.
Or perhaps it’s like being in a packed stand at a football stadium when a last-minute winner is scored, he says, and the entire place erupts in wild unison. The rest of us find those moments once or twice a year, if we’re lucky. The enduring appeal of Francis is that he seems to have found a way to experience them just as often as he likes.
This appeal is near universal, in fact. As we wander out into the rain with our umbrellas, a man in a white van honks his horn and waves madly, stumbling to find his phone to record the apparition shimmering by. After Joe Jonas — the American pop star — dropped a message of appreciation to Francis last year, the pair headed out to trainspot together. “I think he just wanted to experience some joy,” says Francis.
Everyone in between seems thoroughly on board, too. (There are 1.4million acolytes on Instagram; 2.2m on TikTok.). Francis is some sort of cosmic palette cleanser — the influencer we need but don’t deserve. Most of what we do on social media is secondhand living, and almost all of it makes us feel lousy. Even the people that propose to help us, in fact — lifestyle advisors, fitness experts, ‘manifesting’ gurus — leave an odd taste in the mouth, like artificial sweetener. (At base, you suspect they’re helping us mainly to help themselves, and would scarcely bother if no-one was watching.)
Francis, on the other hand, appears not to have an ounce of cynicism in his body. And it’s not like the particulars of trainspotting — sensible clothing, commuter-belt towns, concrete overpasses, drizzle — naturally lend themselves to any ‘lifestyle’ glamour or immediate envy. In other words: the joy is equal on both sides of the screen — which nowadays feels positively radical.
The obsession for Francis started young, as obsessions tend to. He grew up in North West London, and would make regular pilgrimages to Willesden Junction to spot the various delights that would spill through this industrial choke point.
When he was a bit older he moved to rural Somerset and started a new secondary school, by which time he had an extensive Hornby model railway collection. But at the age of about 15 he began to sell parts of it off, and hid his passion for trains from his peers in order to better fit in.
“SCHOOL IS A HOTBED FOR CONFORMITY…”
“Being a train enthusiast at secondary school is difficult,” he says. “Gym memberships and trendy clothes took precedence at that point, regrettably. I think secondary schools are a hotbed for conformity — it’s just the way you survive.”
As Francis’s viral popularity soared last year, some internet sleuths, determined to get to the bottom of this singular character, dug up a few old photos that showed him looking distinctly un-trainspotterish. “I gelled up my hair, and I even wore roadman clothes,” he says in a video explaining the shots. “But it wasn’t me, and it wasn’t making me happy at all.” After that, he says, “lockdown happened, my hair grew out, and I reclaimed my love for trains through my videos. Life is so much more pure now that I’ve reconnected with my passion.”
His success since then has been stratospheric — a rare case of an overnight national treasure, with all the bandwagon-jumping you’d expect. Gucci and North Face used Francis as the face of their landmark collaboration. He appeared alongside Thierry Henry in an advert for Puma. Some upcoming projects, in fact, are too hefty even to mention; guarded with the ferocity of a new Scorsese vehicle.
But through it all, Francis has stayed true to the trains. When we are planning the interview, he asks that we structure it around a sort of trainspotters bucket list of experiences, and it feels, at times, like we are playing out a surreal episode of Desert Island Discs, soundtracked by deltic-formation traction motors. Francis says at one point that there’s something meditative about trains.
“Seeing a constant stream of landscape roll by — sometimes I just sit without my headphones on and listen to the sounds”. But during our two hour chat I realise there is something meditative about his company, too. You don’t need to know anything about a Class 47 — or a Paxman Valenta, or the EMD12-645 engine — to be entranced by the conversation; to experience the rare and pure pleasure of someone talking, unironically and unapologetically, about the thing they love. It is calming and energising all at once.
Take the Class 455, item number one on Francis’s bucket list. (He has each of them jotted down in detail on his phone — the first time in my experience that an interviewee has showed up with their own notes.) He gets out a picture. To me, it looks like a standard commuter train — somewhere in which to eat a sad Pret sandwich, perhaps, or get stuck just outside Aylesbury Vale Parkway. But to Francis this is a love story. These particular trains are being decommissioned this year, he says.
“And I love them to bits. I love them for their sounds. They take their power from the third rail, and they have a very distinctive ooooooooooooooo sound,” he says. When he went on his first date with his girlfriend Amy, he explains, they happened to travel on this very machine. “So, for me, the feeling of being with my girlfriend is wrapped up in the sound of the 455.” (Now, he says, they quickly identify the carriage with the engine underneath and head straight for that. “And we’ll go to the end, find our two seats, and pull the window down and listen.”)
“THE FEELING OF BEING WITH MY GIRLFRIEND IS WRAPPED UP IN THE SOUND OF THE 455…”
“Amy puts up with a lot of stuff, when we go out and get hassled, for example,” Francis explains, adding that his sudden fame has often been surprising, but rarely negative. “But luckily we’re being invited to these wonderful places, too. And I’m hoping that’s reciprocating for her what she’s given to me — which is the support and kindness and warmth that’s enabled me to feel confident and go out and do these things in the first place.”
Meanwhile, the Class 455’s sister engine (the Class 456, of course) has just been pulled out of service, he explains. It is an ominous vision of things to come. “The grim reaper, an engine called the Class 37, picks them up and drags them to Long Marsden where they’re stabled for a couple of months. This is purgatory for trains. Then the reaper drags them down to Newport Sims, where a big mechanical hand rips them all apart. And then that’s it. They’re gone forever. These trains have served people, back and forth, every single day for years,” he says. “And, for me, they have personalities.”
At the end of last year, in fact, Francis posted a video in which two of his favourite locomotives (Class 43 HSTs, if you remember) were scrapped. “I went to say goodbye to them. At that moment, I was quite sad,” he says, and in the video there are tears running down his cheeks. “These trains, I’ve loved them all my life. So it was quite raw to me, like saying goodbye to a pet,” he says. “I remember when my cat was put down, and there was a very definite moment” — he clicks — “when I saw my cat’s head bobbing in its little basket as it was going in. I had a very similar feeling with the Class 43 HSTs. And I posted the video from that emotional moment — which subsequently got memed across the internet…” he laughs. “But such is life.”
“I’VE LOVED THESE TRAINS ALL MY LIFE. SO IT WAS QUITE RAW TO ME — LIKE SAYING GOODBYE TO A PET…”
Why does he think people connect so much with these videos? And how does it make him feel that they do? “For me, in my nature, I just always want to make people feel happy, or try to improve people’s situations,” he says. “One of the most meaningful things was when a young trainspotter messaged me saying: ‘I used to be bullied for my hobby. And now people respect me for it.’ In that moment, I basically helped my younger self become free. So that was powerful.”
Francis explains that he was similarly helped by one of his teachers, who encouraged him to take up maths and apply himself in lessons. “When I was younger, I wasn’t with the right crowd. I had a bit of mischievous energy then,” he says. “But when I got to year 11, my maths teacher was a man called James Simpson — shout out to James Simpson, by the way, and please put this in the article,” he laughs. “We had a parents’ evening and James said: ‘Luke, this is the defining point for you. If you don’t turn around now, you’re going to go down the wrong hole, and you’re not going to come back.’”
So Francis decided to dive into algebra, and quit the rough and tumble. “And something clicked. All of a sudden, I thought: ‘This is the stuff!’” He’d run home to do past papers in his free evenings; “crunching numbers with my headphones on, listening to electronic music.” Then came further maths, and then a physics A-level — which put him on a path to study mechanical engineering at Nottingham, which in turn helped him reignite his love for trains. “I owe James Simpson a lot,” he says.
“So now, I want to go out to secondary schools and tell them: if you’ve got a passion that’s unique — if you love making loom band bracelets, for example — then stick to it. You’re cool, because you do something that no-one else is doing. At school, we’re funnelled into a sport or a subject. But individuality is not encouraged.”
Back to the bucket list. (When we steer off into any personal territory, Francis picks his words very carefully and deliberately — before looking back down at the phone with a swift “right, number five!” to keep us on the tracks.) This one is about the Paxman Valenta, a hefty diesel engine which, when caught at full pelt and in fine fettle, “screams to the high heavens — nothing like it,” Francis says. “The whole place shakes and screams.” It is a heritage engine, a thing of the past. (Though a certain group is working to get it put back onto the mainline, and Francis is determined to help them if he can). If he ever saw it in the wild, Francis says,“it will be the highest possible joy.”
Engines of this type evoke the most visceral reaction in him, he explains. “I count myself as a diesel enthusiast. Just the bass of the diesel engines…” But he also loves steam engines, he says, the enduring poster-child of the train enthusiast — and with that we move onto another item on the list, the Class A4 Mallard, which he would like to see out on the mainline one day. “I love steam in a different way. It’s more of a beast. It’s more of an animal. The pressure is building up. You see it come through to the pistons, and you see all the connecting rods beginning to move, and you see these forged wheels slowly turning. It’s an animal, it’s alive, with the smoke puffing out of the top.”
“That’s sort of what I love in general about the railway,” Francis explains. “Ultimately it’s all about the way that trains have such momentum, and to stop them takes such braking force — and yet, at the same time, they’re confined to their tracks.” He likes the push-and-pull between “chaos and order.” And he can appreciate the juxtaposition personally.
“SOMETHING CLICKED — I THOUGHT: ‘THIS IS THE STUFF!’”
“I love to know what’s going on. I love to plan. On my trainspotting outings, I love to know I’m going to do this, and this, and this, and this,” he explains. “But at the same time, I love absolute chaos. I love the unpredictability of life, and jumping into new situations, and meeting people, and getting along with them — like today — just doing things I couldn’t have predicted.”
There is certainly a lot on the slate that would have looked inconceivable a year ago, say: whispers of a television show; murmurs of new fashion contracts; endless schemes to save ancient engines and help dedicated restoration groups; even the not-so-distant plan to open a nightclub in an abandoned train carriage.
But for now, it’s all about the noise. “In that moment, the train is an embodiment of me,” Francis says. “I see myself reflected in it. Absolute chaos and entropy, confined to a cylinder.” At one point, just before he steps back out into the rain, Francis describes the joy of seeing a much-loved diesel engine slowly thrashing into life from a cold start. It is, he says, a magical, improbable thing. A single splutter; then two, then three, then four; each stroke gathering more and more momentum, louder and louder, wilder and wilder — until the whole thing is off and away, thundering towards the horizon, some gorgeous, mad creation unto itself.