Editorial note: A Canadian transit forum indicated the first two thefts happened on or around 24 and 25 August, respectively. The erroneous dates of 8 and 9 September were based on posts made by bus fans on Facebook about the same incidents a few weeks later. I apologise for the errors.
When you think about bus fans, do you think about someone who takes pictures of buses? Do you think of someone who knows the make, model, and trim of every bus they observe? Do you think of NUMTOTs, a specific community of fanners who espouse liberal ideals of car-free places through investments in public transport infrastructure?
Well **** you. Because today, I’m going to tell a story about a lad who has a different idea of what bus fanning looks like. It’s not a good one. And it is in no way shared by bus fan communities at large. This lad’s definition of bus fanning might look like: ‘steal s*** and show I’m a turbo nerd transport enthusiast.’ I’m going to explain not only the thefts that have transpired this week, but the potential implications these events have on the public transport community as a whole.
Before we start, I want to preface this by saying the events of the past week have been emotionally impactful for the community of bus fans concerned. Members of the community are feeling hurt, outraged, confused, and sad. At the same time, this situation is made even more complex simply because the alleged serial thief is an underage youth.
Because of the issues I described hitherto, I believe it best for me not to name names. Hell, I won’t even name the transport agencies that are still trying to figure out how to make sense of the thefts, which as of the time of writing are ongoing.
I. Chain of Events
That aside, let’s review what you need to know about the thefts. On or around 24 August¹, a thief broke into a bus garage, stole several valuable items from two historical buses, and trashed the interiors of the said buses. The next day, the thief broke into a different garage, stole valuable items from a historical bus, and trashed the interior of the said bus.
It is alleged the thefts thus far are connected to one youth, a self-proclaimed transit enthusiast. More on this lad later.
From the 24 August theft, the lad allegedly accumulated lights, dashboard, switches, an Allison transmission gear selector, a Luminator control pad, and a front stop bell. From the 25 August incident, the lad allegedly managed to get ahold of a side flipdot display, brake light, and an unknown item.
The thief stole these items without care and regard for the caretakers of these historical buses. While the thief was methodical in his desires for valuable bus accessories, the thefts were neither strategic nor well executed. In all cases, the thief resorted to cutting or even ripping cables from the devices and accessories. Additionally, the thief of the 24 August incident emptied a fire extinguisher inside one of the historic buses. Because of extensive damage to its electrical and safety systems, the other bus from the 24 August incident was declared totaled by its caretaker organisation and sent to scrap.
Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends. A few days later in a different city, a retired motorcoach got hit by the same thief. It is alleged the lad from the previous thefts bragged on social media about the items he gained from this incident. From this incident, the lad is allegedly in possession of a Luminator ODK3 controller and is wanting more. The police were made aware of this particular incident, and the transport agency concerned has been advised to keep a watchful eye.
The string of thefts continue to this day, 13 September. In this latest incident, the lad allegedly broke into a motorcoach and started the engine. It was initially confirmed by witness video on Discord, but has since been taken down. A copy of the video surfaced on the private Facebook fan group I am part of which shows the alleged trespasser starting the motorcoach. No other details were provided of this incident.
The youth accused of these thefts has yet to turn himself in to police. It is more likely than not the boy understands the repurcussions of his actions. In addition to bragging about his finds on Discord and social media, the boy calls himself a “Massive moron” on his Facebook headline. I think this speaks volumes not only about his awareness that people are actively hunting him, but about his understanding of the inevitable repurcussions he may face.
In any case, what strikes me about this ordeal is the boy’s lack of self awareness. While bus fans concerned agree with the boy’s Facebook headline title, this in no way implies the boy grasps the economic, reputational, and emotional damage bus fan communities—and by extension, bus riders—face. The next section will cover what this string of thefts means for bus fanning and its relationship to the state.
II. Potential implications for public transport and bus fanning
In late summer 2021, Community Transit of Snohomish County, WA published its October 2021 schedule book. Among the pages was a U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) infographic entitled, “Protect your every day: Recognize the signs of terrorism-related suspicious activity.” These signs include, but are not limited to: surveillance, theft/loss/diversion, breach/attempted intrusion, acquisition of expertise, and sabotage/tampering/vandalism.
If the string of recent thefts happened in the U.S., the thief would have already been on Homeland Security’s radar.² I selected specific points from the TSA infographic to mention here because they match exactly the characteristics of the thefts. The lad allegedly behind this breached several bus yards to steal parts and vandalise buses. He likely needed to acquire valuable information to access and strip parts from these buses, however crude his methods. Most importantly, his role as a “Transit enthusiast” could well been perceived as surveillance in the eyes of Homeland Security no matter how bus fan communities concretely define the hobby.
It is peculiar I am discussing this very near the 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks. No doubt U.S. society is weary of anything they perceive as “threats,” including unfortunately: people of certain races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religious beliefs. The potential U.S. national security implications of the thefts in Canada are not concerns I hold. At the end of the day, I view such incidents in the same light as car thefts or burglaries; those petty crimes that are generally best handled by local and not federal authorities.
Instead, I am most concerned about increasing state encroachment on public transport. We can already see this through TSA’s enforcement approach to the otherwise necessary mask mandate on public transport, as well as its ad campaign on Community Transit. For the latter, TSA vaguely characterizes certain activities as “terrorism-related suspicious activity,” most notably those described as surveillance or acquisition of expertise. The fact bus fanning can be conflated with such activities as defined by the TSA is not unfounded. For example, as a member of a multiregional bus fan Facebook group, I regularly read discussions by frustrated community members about being constantly questioned by police or private security for legally taking photos of public transport on public property. I learned one transport security employee even threated to run one of the community members through Homeland Security.
I sparingly take public transport photos for that reason. Public transport is something that needs to be lived and experienced for one to appreciate it. I made it clear in several poems (here and here) as well as a couple projects (here and here) public transport is my home. Despite being a place for state sanctioned control and surveillance (for example, through fare enforcement practices), public transport is a safe space for me. When federal agencies like Homeland security encourage the general public to look for signs they vaguely associate with terrorist activities, it unnecessarily creates an unsafe space for many members of the riding public—including people of colour, not just bus fans.
Incidents like the serial thefts in Canada only serve to provide fodder for institutions to surveil and instill public fear in what is otherwise a legitimate and harmless hobby. Again, it’s just really unfortunate how a youth is allegedly involved in this whole mess, as well as the massive intrinsic and economic losses associated with the thefts. I sincerely wish the caretakers of those buses and coaches the very best as they continue to figure out how to apprehend the thief and move on from this ordeal. To the thief: **** you. That’s it. See you.
- For the sake of brevity, I will refer to the first two break-ins as having happened on 24 August and 25 August, respectively.
- The incidents happened in Canada.