The mystery and magic of the railway
Still from “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (1895) by the Lumière brothers
Back when I had a proper job, Paddington Station was my weekly catharsis. The days of civil service drudgery, stifling in the Friday evening fugand sweat of the Bakerloo Line, would be blown away by the soaring rush of air and light as I walked up into Brunel and Wyatt’s vast iron vault. The main shed was the largest in the world when built; the moon and star details, high and tiny in the ironwork, are for scaffolding as well as decoration. There’s a purity to the design of Paddington: the tracks lead you out on the same straight line you walked in. Go West, they urge, and they make it easy to do so.
There’s the whistle, urgent and thrilling. The unmistakable slamming of train doors. (Proper doors, I mean; the synthetic beeps and anaemic hiss of the suburban sliding door kindle no romance; they are the incidental music of purgatory and Omar Sharif wouldn’t have bothered running for one.) And then, imperceptibly – the irrational panic of something forgotten, the held breath – the train starts to move. You know it. You feel it. Freedom and possibility.
From the very first day of steam-powered passenger rail travel, danger and drama were implicit in the thrill. During the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830, when a trainload of dignitaries got out to watch others puffing past, former Secretary of State for War William Huskisson panicked: he tried to clamber back into a stationary carriage, couldn’t control the swinging
door and fell. The oncoming Rocket smashed his leg, and he died shortly afterwards.
This macabre incident is a grim encapsulation of the narrative power of railways. Dramatic tension depends on giving the audience an expectation and then playing with it. The railway tracks and timetable are the visual proof that – unless one grew up trying to travel on British Rail – a train will be on a certain spot at a certain time. (This is the essence of the dramatic power of tying Penelope Pitstop to the tracks, and an expectation repeatedly upended by the genius of Buster Keaton.) Just as Chekhov’s law dictates that a pistol seen on the wall in Act 1 will inevitably be fired in Act 3, if you show a famous locomotive coming down a track towards a character, something will happen. If poor William Huskisson had only followed instructions – alighted only when in the station and minded the gap – would the very concept of narrative have been different?
Railways transformed the world: the economies of individuals and states, the patterns of communities and consumption. Within a century, railways had helped provoke a world war and shape its strategy. But during the early decades, the shock was social. Growing up in the nineteenth century your circle was familiar and similar. But in a train you’d be trapped in a box travelling at 60 mph with a group of strangers.
The paranoia this provoked – Ruskin called railways “the loathsomest form of devilry”– was validated at Hackney Wick station in July 1864 by the gruesome discovery of “a large quantity of blood [and] particles of brain matter” in a corner seat. The body of bank clerk Thomas Briggs, rail’s first murder victim, was found a little way back down the line. The arrest and conviction of immigrant tailor Franz Müller, following a frenzied pursuit across the Atlantic, was a story that captivated the press and public, and led to the introduction of emergency cords and train corridors.
Some sense of the luxury and social exclusivity of train travel was restored by Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers. In 1882 he and a select group set off on one of history’s most splendid shopping-sprees on his “Train Éclair de Luxe” from Paris to Vienna. The first evening they dined on oysters, soup, turbot, chicken à la chasseur, fillet of beef, chaud-froid of game and chocolate pudding (remember that, or try not to, as you gaze disconsolately at the buffet trolley). It was the dress rehearsal for Nagelmackers’s Orient Express.
Everyone who was anyone travelled on the Orient Express – including Leo Tolstoy and Lawrence of Arabia, both better known for violence-with-trains. The King of Bulgaria insisted on driving it; the president of France fell out of it in his pyjamas in the middle of the night. The Orient Express established the railway’s intoxicating combination of glamour, distinctive characters and transgressive border crossings.
Flèche d’Or carriage, Orient Express
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895) by the Lumière brothers first showcased railway travel in film. (Its English-language title, Train Pulling into a Station is even less catchy but effectively summarises the 50 seconds of action.) The fertile sense of energy and possibility in narratives about trains soon exploded in Edwin S. Porter’s film The Great Train Robbery (1903) with its legendary final sequence of the bandit leader pointing his pistol at the audience and firing.
Real-life drama became railway fiction: in 1929 the Orient Express was snowbound in Turkey for six days; in 1931 Agatha Christie was stuck on it for 24 hours because of flooding and made careful notes about her fellow hostages. Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) isn’t actually her best whodunnit, but it’s gripping because it captures all the glamour and intensity of train confinement.
Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins was differently sinister, rich with Ruritanian plotting across Balkan borders; Hitchcock’s hugely successful film version, The Lady Vanishes with Margaret Lockwood, had villainous foreigners and two comedy Englishmen resolutely ignoring any skullduggery so they could get home in time for the cricket, and worked so well it was immediately remade with the same elements.
Two notorious real-life murders on the Orient Express mirror these approaches. The 1935 death of Romanian gallery owner Maria Farcasanu was driven by luxury: her jewelled platinum watch, her silver fox fur stole. And the 1950 death of American naval attaché Eugene Karpe reeked of diplomatic dodginess: an imprisoned spy, missing documents, mysterious messages and a killing “on orders from a foreign organisation”.
Sometimes the movement of the train drives a film’s power: the chase or the race, the endless cuts away to pistons thumping over the tracks. Keaton chasing the Union saboteurs in The General; Burt Lancaster’s resistance pleb trying to stop snooty German officer Paul Scofield smuggling out France’s art treasures in The Train; Robert Shaw hijacking the subway in The Taking of Pelham 123.
Then there’s the romance of the train setting – Paul Newman outsmarting Robert Shaw in The Sting; Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirting spectacularly in North By Northwest. They could have done so anywhere, but their languid drinks and cigarettes feel more stylish racing through the landscape, and how handy to have a sleeping berth next door; again, the pistons thump over the tracks. At least five Bond films combine action and romance in train sequences, most famously the Orient Express compartment fight to the death (Robert Shaw again!) in From Russia With Love.
The romance and possibility of boarding a train is matched only by the melancholic power of not taking it. Brief Encounter is one of the most quietly devastating might-have-beens on film. Doctor Zhivago doesn’t take the train. Anna Karenina takes train journeys towards happiness, but at last is left behind by one. In The Railway Children, the train is possibility and adulthood and mystery.
Part of the magic of rail travel is its durability. Despite the train now being more expensive than the plane in my habitual two-stage journey from southwest Britain to the Balkans, despite the great railway cathedrals of the industrial revolution being replaced with banal imitations of airport lounges, the most romantic and adventurous journeys are still to be had by rail. As we emerge from undergrounds and lockdowns, we look at our fellow-passengers and wonder; we look at the departure board and dream.
Robert Wilton’s latest Edwardian entertainment, “Poison in Paris”, is set on the Orient Express. A writer and translator, sometime international diplomat and development worker, co-founder of The Ideas Partnership charity empowering marginalised minority communities, he’s published half a dozen historical novels. He and Elizabeth Gowing podcast “A Coffee in the Accursed Mountains” and give talks on railway skullduggery and diverse other topics. For more info, visit: robertwilton.com and elizabethgowing.com