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The 17.42 to Crewe

The 17.42 to Crewe

You call them train or railway enthusiasts these days. Not spotters. That term took on a pejorative effect after the success and associations of a certain Scottish artefact, which pinned itself to our cultural timetables almost thirty years ago. A whiff of playground cruelty in the air, ‘trainspotting’ became a widely understood metaphor for trivial or pointless pursuits. Six-figure collaborations with The North Face and Gucci don’t seem so trivial or pointless, however, assuming you aren’t already minted. 
 
Francis Bourgeois: star risen. 2.3 million TikTok followers, best eyebrows in the house, brands lining up around the block to catch some shine from the meteor man, the new (indeed perhaps the only) acceptable face of train, although I suppose that depends where you stand on Michael Portillo (TikTok followers: n/a). 
 
It’s a truth as old as tabloid (and probably as old as jealousy) that what goes up must be in receipt of backlash and, if at all possible, brought crashing down. Francis suffered an inaugural dose in December last year, when The Tab revealed his real name (Luke Nicholson). It soon came to light that he was a fan of house music, had attended at least one music festival, was on the books of Brother Models; and used to dress like a roadman, in the way that well-spoken teens going through a run-of-the-mill identity crisis so often do. According to some, this was evidence of deceit and betrayal, because true enthusiasts, apparently, either can’t or shouldn’t be doing any of that. 
 
So far, so bullshit. I’m not exactly a fan, but none of these smears came close to muddying my view of Francis’ seemingly harmless content. The backlash did get me thinking though: if some of his own followers are this trigger happy with the muck gun, what might his fellow (or rival) train enthusiasts have to say? I went in search of comment and opinion from those inside one of the UK’s most taciturn communities. 
 
‘I hate Francis Bourgeois,’ confides Tim, a teenaged enthusiast based on the south coast, and the first to respond to my online advances. ‘He just begs drivers for tones.’ 
 
For ‘tones’ read ‘horns’. Many of Francis’ videos feature him reacting with rhapsodic glee as passing trains blare two-note greetings. Requesting them is a bit of a faux pas for some in the scene, but why? ‘He got a driver in trouble for blowing his horn before. When they do he acts like it’s Christmas, even though he’s heard a train horn over a thousand times.’
 
So fellow enthusiasts aren’t keen on the giddy responses to tones. But this is what made Francis famous, and there are millions of people who can’t get enough of exactly that. I won’t be calling on him to calm it down, even if he does ham it up. 
 
Still, concerned that train drivers might be risking their livelihoods for the shrieks of a 21-year-old, I approached a man called Michael from Lancashire, who once had the honour of tooting for Francis. 
 
‘I gave Francis Bourgeois several tones and I’m not sure who was happier, me or him.’
 
Wasn’t Michael worried about the repercussions?
 
‘The potential to get in trouble is there, as the horn should only be used in certain situations, but I can’t see any real disciplinary action being taken because of it. Maybe an informal warning, nothing more.’
 
I pressed Michael for his colleagues’ thoughts on the internet star.
 
‘Train drivers are very archaic, the majority are over 55 years old and miserable. They don’t take kindly to people like Francis, they think he’ll cause a serious incident. There’s a few youngsters coming through now though, and most of them love him.’
 
The day may come when Francis is brought to trial for his role in a six-man pancake on the tracks of platform 11 at Crewe Station, but until that day we’ll presume he follows all relevant safety guidelines.
 
Or will we? Rhian, a follower of the steam scene, offered me this troubling insight.
 
‘Not long ago he caught The Flying Scotsman on top of a hill above Sapperton Railway Tunnel in the Golden Valley, near Stroud. That location used to be a popular vantage point for enthusiasts, but in the last few years the British Transport Police (BTP) have been moving people on from there, including myself, because it’s actually on the railway boundary. Yet Francis managed to get onto that location, to film the one steam locomotive most likely to get the BTP out, and he got away with it.’
 
Is Rhian suggesting that the BTP are in cahoots with Bourgeois, bending the rules for him and only enforcing them for the rest of us?
 
‘All I’ll say is that he seems to be allowed to do a lot more than dedicated, sensible rail enthusiasts, purely because of his fame. This makes us incredibly jealous.’
 
It must be said, if Francis has managed to sweet talk the BTP, a particularly unreasonable and draconian tendril of the law, into letting him film where he shouldn’t be, then I can only offer him my heartfelt respect. But this is, without doubt, vastly unfair on the normal, law-abiding enthusiasts. And Rhian picks up on another thing with her scan of the comments section: Bourgeois’ fans aren’t railway enthusiasts.
 
Jackie Weaver fans don’t like parish council meetings, Gordon Ramsay fans don’t like cooking, and Francis Bourgeois fans don’t like trains. They like the messenger, the character – or caricature – on their screens, not of their scene. And that’s absolutely fine. But, unsurprisingly, this irks those who do genuinely share a passion for the railways, because it feels like someone has taken it away, re-packaged it and fed it to the laymen for the likes, the money and the acclaim. 
 
That’s not to say anyone bringing their particular hobbies to a wider audience is inherently self-serving (although there is serious malfeasance to be examined where Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares is concerned). This is just a fact of success. A young transport enthusiast, with the online moniker, ‘Epic Bus Guy’, put it this way:
 
‘He brings attention to our great hobby of trains and transportation but perhaps he's not bringing the right sort of attention. The media coverage focuses on him, not the hobby. He is probably a nice enough chap in real life but you can never tell with somebody on social media.’
 
Does Epic Bus Guy consider Francis sincere, at least?
 
‘I think he’s a fraud, but not necessarily a fraud with bad intentions. He may well have an interest in trains, but it’s not his main priority when it comes to making these videos. He seems to reinforce the negative stereotypes that hobbyists are all socially awkward, and potentially reinforces stereotypes about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).’
 
Epic Bus Guy touches on another contentious issue in the Bourgeois discourse: whether Francis is a person with ASD. It is not my business to speculate on that, but, as a person with autism, it may well be Epic Bus Guy’s, because if Francis is aping characteristics associated with a disorder it turns out he doesn’t have, then that’s not OK.
 
Despite plenty of people posing the question online, Bourgeois has at no point indicated whether he's got ASD himself, and we are not inclined or more importantly qualified to pursue this line of investigation. 
 
Is he a bad bloke? Absolutely not, in my view. I don’t think he’s pretending to be autistic, I do think he really likes trains, and I’m fairly sure his main aim is to please and entertain. The harsher words offered from the enthusiasts must be seen through the lens of frustration and, in some cases, plain old jealousy. But if I was a trainspotter, and I saw the tracks of Francis’ career all laid out before him –  I’d be riddled with envy, wouldn’t you?

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