Are Trains Magic?

Are trains the most magical form of transportation?

In real life we don’t use them much anymore. But when they appear in stories (especially in films) they tend to have powerfully exotic and/or magical properties. I’m thinking of The Polar Express, The Darjeeling Limited, Spirited Away, the Harry Potter stories, etc.

So, are trains (in popular stories) more frequently magical than cars, buses, planes, etc. (in popular stories)? Or, to put it mathematically, where T = form of transportation, do trains score the highest in this equation?

[ (frequency of T in stories) / (frequency of T in life) ] x (popularity of stories with T) x (magic qualities of T)

Of course there are magic cars (Knight Rider, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and even The Magic School Bus. But in stories about road trips, the car is primarily a source of forward motion. It’s a gritty thing, notable for its simple mechanics and its stubborn functionality.

If cars offer a way to navigate the road and make choices along it, trains provide the opposite: a fixed route that moves people from one stop to the next. The railroad has a destiny; passengers come along for the ride. They can meet strangers aboard and explore the various waystations. But the route they are traveling is not one they have mapped out for themselves.

And since trains connote a bygone era, they often have an ornate or bewildering style, which adds to their sense of mystery.

I’m just wondering if there is a particular kind of story that trains belong to, and if it’s necessarily more enchanted than other kinds of stories.



Filed under a motion picture is worth a couple of words, Hooray Fiction!

4 Responses to Are Trains Magic?

  1. Tolstoy often placed significant events on trains. For instance, the final scene of Anna Karenina, and the “Kreutzer Sonata.”

    At least in the 19th century, wasn’t the train a symbol of modernity and progress?

    Great blog here!

  2. Carrie M

    Don’t forget that trains often serves as the scenes of murder and intrigue, a la “Murder on the Orient Express,” at least two Hitchcock films, and a slew of other books and movies.

    Plus they make for delightful action sequences. How many times have you seen Good Guy running and leaping along the top of train cars, pursued by Bad Guy(s)? (Brian, I hope this immediately brings to mind a young River Phoenix, if nothing else.)

    Trains also often provide the vehicle for dramatic departures, lovers and families being separated or reunited—a lone figure on a platform tearfully waving a handkerchief at her departing lover.

    And trains frequently afford an opportunity for characters to take on new or false identities, as trains are sort of a netherworld, a neither here nor there, a break from real, mundane life.

    See also:

  3. Ben

    Travel literature. Think: The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, Rolling Nowhere by Ted Conover, In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, or The Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman.

  4. Carrie-

    Yes, trains as a sort of liminal zone, between tick and tock, a break from binary systems of knowing and being.

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