TRAINSPOTTING &THE SUPERGEEK
With trainspotting following chess and birdwatching down the tracks in the reinvention of the humdrum hobby, is embracing the individuality of our quirky personal passions the key to joy 2.0, asks Rick Jordan?
On an unassuming railway platform somewhere in England, a tousled-haired figure with something of Carnaby Street-era Bowie about him is getting excited about trains. “There are few things that give me adrenaline rushes,” he says breathlessly as a snub-nosed, blue-and-yellow engine powers past, “and one of them is a Class 37 thrashing!” The train he’s referring to is a diesel-electric number last built in 1965; “thrashing” is locomotive lingo for when it throws out billows of smoke.
That figure is Francis Bourgeois, a 21-year-old social-media phenomenon who has clocked up 2.5 million followers on TikTok by posting videos of his exhilarated, unrestrained reactions to rare and not-so-rare trains around the UK and Europe. Using a fisheye GoPro lens that renders his face almost marsupial-like, and dressed in hi-vis orange, double denim or vintage stationcore clothing, Bourgeois can be seen riding in the cabins of various engines, encouraging honks from passing drivers, and paying homage to retiring heroes of the 20th-century railway age. As well as hanging out with pop stars Joe Jonas and Rosalía, he’s starred alongside football legend Thierry Henry in an advert for Puma, and modelled as the face of a Gucci and North Face collaboration, filmed on the platform of a small West Yorkshire station.
Trains haven’t been this cool since electronic pioneers Kraftwerk recorded their ode to rail travel “Trans-Europe Express” in 1976. “From station to station, back to Dusseldorf City, meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie...” Those with their binoculars trained on the bigger picture will spot new and expanded routes snaking across the continent from Belmond’s own Venice Simplon-Orient-Express journeys now calling at Rome, Florence, Amsterdam and Geneva, to Rail Baltica aiming to link up Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Stations – always a benchmark for the architect wanting to make a statement – are continuing to evolve too. Zaha Hadid Architects’ new design for Vilnius station, hitherto known for its unexpected statue of Tony Soprano, will be a timber-framed swoosh of a bridge that connects neighbourhoods on both sides of the tracks and doubles up as a concourse. And unveiled in 2021, the gloriously light-filled Moynihan Train Hall at Penn Station in New York is a conversion of a Beaux Arts post office, with a contemporary stained-glass artwork by African-American painter Kehinde Wiley titled simply ‘Go’, its blue-sky thinking depicting young Black breakdancers seemingly ascending to the heavens contrasting with its Art Deco waiting room.
It’s that slow-go vintage glamour that is a big part of the enduring appeal of rail travel, adopted by steampunk fantasies, its soundtrack bringing the comforting tingle of ASMR – the rattle of the wheels on track, the “sheee-coo, sheee-coo” huff-and-puff of a steam engine building up speed, the distant ding-ding of a freight express. Wes Anderson’s recent refit of the 1950s-built Cygnus carriage on the British Pullman, A Belmond Train encapsulates this, the Grand Budapest Hotel director’s vision of sunbeam marquetry, swan-shaped Champagne coolers and emerald-green fabrics creating a nostalgic, wagon-lit glow of pre-war railway journeys. “They are keeping something special alive,” Anderson said of the work. “An endangered species of travel which is nevertheless very suited to our time.”
Talking of endangered species, until Bourgeois’s appearance the revival of the trainspotter always seemed unlikely. But in the past few years, various other anorak-friendly pursuits have been growing in coolness, the normcore fashion trend permeating into our free time, partly helped by the search for DIY lockdown activities during 2020 and 2021 (see mudlarking, metal detectors and model building), and partly by fresh perspectives. Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit fuelled a boom in chess sets as well as a growing number of female players inspired by Anya Taylor-Joy’s sharp-eyed performance as the mid-century chess prodigy. Birdwatching is being championed by a younger, more urban demographic, including Flock Together, a London-based collective encouraging more people of colour to take up the hobby. Even stamp- collecting, which you think might have been licked long ago by Pokémon GO, has been embraced – like board games and Perudo – by millennials, drawn by tactile alternatives to screen-based activities.
Trainspotting came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, when avid schoolboys clutched treasured copies of The ABC Of Southern Locomotives. “In the 1970s, it was almost gang-like,” says artist Andrew Cross, who has traversed American railroads for the past three decades and is the subject of a new documentary film, Ferroequinology (meaning the study of railways). “You either went to football or you went trainspotting. Nick Hornby could easily have written a Fever Pitch about the hobby. And it’s significant that Bourgeois gets about. That was always the appeal – to travel around the country. Journeying is what drives my train-watching, with the railroad network taking me to some very out-of-the-way places,” Cross adds. “I believe there’s an important value in anyone pursuing idiosyncratic interests, especially in today’s increasingly homogenised world. And the best things, including art, contain an element of absurdity to them. Why else stand in the middle of the American desert all day waiting for a train to pass?”
Whether hordes of young trainspotters start populating platforms again or not remains to be seen, but Bourgeois’s breathless enthusiasm for everyday rolling stock is infectious. He describes the sights and sounds of trains as meditative; but it’s his sense of wonder and pure ir- repressible joy that really stands out. To paraphrase a certain cult film of the 1990s, choose life... choose trains.