TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois on identity, internet hate and commuting playlists (2024)

By Alex Taylor,BBC News Culture reporter

TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois on identity, internet hate and commuting playlists (1)TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois on identity, internet hate and commuting playlists (2)BBC

"I've got a model railway that runs all the way around my flat," says TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois.

This admission will make perfect sense, and perhaps bring a grin, to the millions who follow the 23-year-old on social media.

For those less familiar, he's a unique kind of internet celebrity.

His trainspotting reaction videos, showing his uncontainable, wholesome excitement as locomotives fly by, appeared to touch people during the pandemic, with comments underneath regularly pointing to the dose of joy he provided.

Now, boasting a combined five million plus followers across TikTok and Instagram, life is busy.

Celebrities including singer Joe Jonas and retired footballer Thierry Henry have starred in his videos, there's a book to his name, and fashion partnerships, Gucci included. Oh, and a live onstage appearance at a Sam Fender gig.

But trains come first.

Bourgeois, real name Luke Nicholson, grew up in northwest London near Willesden Junction station, sparking his childhood fascination with trains. His parents didn't own a car, so he travelled to school by rail and could see railway lines from the classroom.

"I just thought everyone loved trains?" he says earnestly.

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Francis Bourgeois attempts to travel from the southern coast of England to the northern coast of Scotland using only British Railway rolling stock.

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His grandmother bought him his first train when he was four, which grew into a lifelong passion for model making.

"It's been the centrepiece of my railway enthusiasm throughout my life," he says. "In my late teens, I had a model railway that grew and grew… at one point it took over my parents' conservatory."

Fast forward a few years, and his latest model in his flat, which travels through his bedroom and into the living room, holds special meaning. It represents the rebirth and acceptance of his passions - set free through TikTok trainspotting videos.

Identity over conformity

At age six, Bourgeois and his family left London for Somerset. As a teenager, changing schools escalated social pressure to conform, pushing trains out of first class priority. He sold or threw away his old train models and replaced them with gelled hair, gym workouts, and partying, in hope of fitting in.

"It was suppressed under the surface," he says. "Now, having my model railway, the pressure has been released."

His TikTok trainspotting videos have taken this further, helping him both "rediscover who I am inside" and "properly own" his trainspotting passion through his famous screen identity.

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Ironically, Francis Bourgeois' rise began from pressure to conform.

In 2021, while studying Mechanical Engineering at Nottingham University, Nicolson began posting trainspotting videos using the Francis pseudonym (inspired by artist Louise Bourgeois) to protect his employment prospects - eventually landing a fourth-year internship with Rolls-Royce.

These early videos, of course, didn't stay secret around the carmaker office for long. When the plant director mentioned the clips with a smile in passing, Bourgeois knew they had "gone everywhere."

It served as a lesson. "I wanted to form a protective bubble over that side of my life; isolate it in a way, but in doing so I realised this is what I want to be."

"I started to realise that it's absolutely cool to have this unique passion."

Then lockdown happened, almost hand-in-hand with the meteoric rise of TikTok, and Bourgeois came into full view. Now he uploads almost daily. And the sense of fun remains. One early viral video showed him falling off a picnic chair in excitement as a train whizzed past.

Although part-comedic, filmed using a go-pro strapped to his head and a distorting fisheye lens, it is the simple intense authenticity of the emotion that keeps eyes watching and his fanbase growing.

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Traditional media interest has followed, with a 2022 digital series for Channel 4 taking celebrities trainspotting.

Now he is set to front his full-length solo TV debut for the BBC Travel Show.

The adventure sees him travel nearly 900 miles, making 87 train stops over five days, riding exclusively on British Railway rolling stock.

It's an opportunity, says Bourgeois, to break out of the confines of time-limited TikTok and lift the curtain on trainspotting, as well as his love for the railway, its heritage and its future.

"I've found that I have a direct emotional connection with the railway. It doesn't just make me laugh; it can make me cry.

"To see a huge full steam locomotive go by at 75 miles an hour - it's such a thrill," he says.

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During his travels, he spots a train produced by one of the last remaining UK-based train factories and meets volunteers dedicated to preserving iconic railway lines.

"For parts of our railway history to potentially disappear is sad. I want people to experience the raw beauty of the railway."

Internet backlash

But the fame of this visceral, niche relationship has also given Bourgeois darker times.

When pictures and videos emerged online showing his life outside trains, be it as a teen wearing different style clothes, working out at the gym, or, more recently, enjoying himself at a music festival, some on social media were quick to dismiss his TikTok identity as an inauthentic hoax.

The backlash hurt.

"In coming out of my shell with my railway enthusiasm, it felt like I was being pushed back in," Bourgeois says.

"Some people believe it's just a facade or a character, but what I feel when I see the trains is raw emotion, and that's what I let through on the camera, uninhibited.

"Before, at school, I had these social inhibitions. When I'm out on the railway, everything is stripped back to the raw essence of how I'm feeling."

He says trainspotting appeals because it offers both certainty and unpredictability, and goosebumps appear on his arms.

In a video addressing the controversy, he openly explained his past struggles to fit in at school and how he now feels confident being his true self. He says people appreciated his honesty, as they related to his experience of finding their identity in school.

"One of my friends, from the so-called cool group at school said: 'If you had told me about your model railway, I'd have told you about my Lego Star Wars!'" Bourgeois says.

Our interview comes amid ongoing conversations around how best to regulate social media. So what would his advice be for those facing online hate?

"It's not necessarily helpful to combat it directly", he reflects. "It's better to talk about feelings".

He says he's spoken with his girlfriend of around six years, Amy, "for a long time" about the impact of social media. "She's really helped me feel confident", he continues.

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"Now, I know what I do social media for - for me and my railway enthusiasm. I see the backlash, but I also see the people who love the videos."

Love of electronic music

Outside of trains, Bourgeois' other passion is music. I have to ask: Is it headphones in or out when travelling by train?

"It depends. Some trains sound amazing but I enjoy travelling at 125mph, immersed in sound," he says, listening to heavy electronica, metal like Brutus, or ambient acts like Stars of the Lid.

The latter feature in his ideal headline picks, alongside electronic pioneers Andrew Weatherall and Aphex Twin.

The repetitive sounds of electronic music, he says, remind him of trains.

And with that he's showing me an edit of Aphex Twin's track AFX, which mimics and samples the sounds of an underground train, complete with a twisted reworking of the mind the gap announcement.

He offers to curate a playlist, which is reproduced below:

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Francis Bourgeois' commuter playlist

1. Ceephax Acid Crew - Commuter

2. Sandwell District - Falling The Same Way (Regis Mix)

3. The Sabres of Paradise - Ballad of Nicky McGuire

4. Luke Vibert - Acid2000

5. Salz - Stainless Dub

6. Rhythm & Sound - Mango Drive

7. Andy Stott - Numb

8. Godspel - Distance Lends Enchantment To The View

9. The Kinks - Waterloo Sunset

Listen on Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music

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But Bourgeois is also intrigued by the mysterious Global Goon, aka Johnny Hawk - once falsely rumoured to be Aphex Twin, and now listed as his former roommate on Spotify.

He's determined to confirm Goon's identity.

"I emailed him about a track called Thoxitron9 01 that he deleted, and he told me it was on a private SoundCloud playlist, but it's gone now. Luckily, I have a screen recording of it because it's an incredible drum and bass track."

For Bourgeois, train tracks are also never too far away, but these days he's definitely following his own.

Francis Bourgeois will be on The Travel Show on the BBC News Channel from 00:30 on Saturday 25 May. Watch on BBC iPlayer, here.

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TikTok trainspotter Francis Bourgeois on identity, internet hate and commuting playlists (2024)

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