What is it about trains that capture our imagination again and again? Railways seem to pop up in book, films and TV shows so often, from “Thomas the Tank Engine” to “Murder on the Orient Express”. Why do these engines have such appeal that other forms of transport don’t? How many programs are there about aeroplanes, mopeds or hovercrafts? True, there have been two recent series that focus on white vans (“White Van Man” and “Olly the Little White Van”) but will they be remembered in fifty years? It seems doubtful.
Part of the appeal is the romance of the old steam engines. When JK Rowling invented the Hogwarts Express, she didn’t base it on a Wessex Electric, did she? No, it was a shining, scarlet steam train. And they are beautiful. You just have to pay a visit to the Watercress Line (one of the best attractions in the south) and see one of them in action to appreciate how majestic they are. That’s why the “steamies” in Thomas are the good guys and the diesels are the baddies – steam may be obsolete but it’s a darn sight more lovable than the trains that followed.
There’s also an extended metaphor to be taken through railways – every story should take us on a journey and the railway symbolises that journey. A classic example is E.Nesbit’s novel “The Railway Children”, where the family go on a bit of a voyage of self-discovery through the book. Their world is turned upside down, they have to “play at being poor” and along the way – twee as it may sound – they find out what’s really important. And again, it’s a steam engine that’s used in the film adaptation. Otherwise, the end scene where Roberta see her “Daddy, oh my Daddy” just wouldn’t be the same. Without the atmospheric clouds of steam, she’d have spotted him right away and there would be no suspense. And “Brief Encounter” just wouldn’t be the same if it took place among the glitz of Heathrow Terminal 5.
It’s good to see that modern kids’ TV is still finding inspiration from trains. “Chuggington” features talking trains, from the electric passenger trains to the old steam train “Old Puffer Pete.” It may bear some similarity to the Thomas stories but really, it’s just another sign that the railway will always have a place in our popular culture.