Trains on film: The best of 2009

Posted by Matt Van Hattem
on Monday, January 4, 2010

President Obama inauguration trainRailroads have a surprising way of sneaking into the popular culture — sometimes in places where we least expect them. What follows is a short list of my favorite railroad “cameo appearances” in movies and TV for 2009.
This list is by no means comprehensive, so why not share your favorite “trains on film” moments from 2009 with us?
Here are seven to get you started.
President Obama’s inauguration train: Millions of Americans watched on Jan. 17, 2009, as a president-elect rode a 10-car Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and for once, the commentary didn’t center around passenger-train deficits or grade crossing whistle bans, but on… possibilities. Here was a gleaming Amtrak train, front and center in the American consciousness, linking past and present with the power and symbolism only a train can provide.
(Bob Johnston photo at right)
Milwaukee Road No. 261 Public EnemiesPublic Enemies. There’s a bit of sentimentality in this choice, since it might be Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261’s last appearance on film. The famed steam excursion star has been in front of countless cameras (maybe even yours?), but her supporting role in this summer biopic of gangster John Dillinger gave the movie a touch of bygone railroad splendor. Even the trailer showed the engine pulling majestically into Chicago Union Station. Purists have griped that the locomotive technically had not been built when the movie was set, but honestly, isn’t seeing a real working steam engine arriving at Chicago better than CGI fakery?
(Universal Pictures photo)
The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: Bombastic, over the top, ridiculous… This remake of the classic 1974 film was all those things and more. But it was the year’s biggest movie about trains — and that has to count for something. The picture was flawed (do yourself a favor and see the original), but the tableau of moving trains that filled many scenes was stunning.
Great Amtrak commercials. Check out these two awesome TV commercials that aired in 2009. They were part of a new campaign to invite riders aboard the trains and take a slap at the competition. ("Why is travel these days about what you give up rather than what you get…?"). We love them!
Dr. Phil rides Acela. Sure, it was a gimmick. Still, it was fun to watch Dr. Phil counsel trainloads of Acela Express passengers on a trip from New York to Philadelphia and back, not so much for the armchair psychology, but for the great railroad environment. The producers used every part of the train — from the inviting coaches to the slick café, as well the cozy Metropolitan Lounge and cavernous waiting room of Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Through it all, one thing remained clear: those big picture windows on the Acela can’t be matched for a fascinating look at America.
Sitcom characters admit they’re railfans. I’ve thought for a while there’s a railfan among the producers of the TV show “The Office,” given the subtle railroad references that find their way on screen now and then. This year, however, it reached a new level.
Sharp-eyed viewers no doubt noticed the print hanging in Jim Halpert’s office depicting an Erie Lackawanna passenger train in Hoboken Terminal. (You can get your copy from the Erie Lackawanna Dining Car Preservation Society.)
Then in a September 2009 episode called “The Meeting,” office pinheads Dwight and Toby discovered they have a mutual interest.

Toby: You're into trains?
Dwight: I have been my whole life. I'm rebuilding a turn of the century steam engine in my slaughter house.
Toby: That's so cool.
Dwight: Yeah.
Toby: Wow, I'd love to take a look at that.
Dwight: It's just a run of the mill slaughter house, but sure anytime.
Toby: Well, you know, 'cause of the trains.

100 Greatest Train MoviesMeanwhile, over on "The Big Bang Theory,” our nerds in shining armor took a road trip on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight in a March episode entitled “The Terminator Decoupling.”
Lots of TV shows have a “train episode,” and more often than not they’re disappointing. But the “Big Bang’s” train trip was genuinely funny, and infused with an enthusiasm for train travel courtesy of self-proclaimed railfan Sheldon. There’s a great clip on YouTube.
Even cute neighbor Penny shares her favorite train-riding moment: “Usually when I go to San Francisco, I just get hammered and ride the cable cars.”
Those are my picks. What are yours?
If you’re into train movies, pick up our new publication, “100 Greatest Train Movies,” with plot summaries, great photos, and behind-the-scenes information. — Matt Van Hattem

Tags: movies
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