Midnight Train to Georgia
Fun fact: this song, written and first recorded by Jim Weatherly, was inspired by Charlie’s Angel and '70s hairdo sensation Farrah Fawcett, who was dating Weatherly's friend Lee Majors at the time and told the songwriter she was taking the “midnight plane to Houston” to visit her family. The song was renamed to "Midnight Train to Georgia" when Cissy Houston (Whitney's mum) wanted to record it but avoid the Houston double-up. Her version attracted the attention of Gladys Knight & The Pips, who reached number 1 in the US and won a Grammy with their remake, which has since been named one of Rolling Stones’ 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. For me, however, it will always bring back memories of this scene in 30 Rock.
The Polar Express
Creepy Tom Hanks and bodgy CGI help to teach a young boy the true meaning of Christmas in this movie, which is based on a book from the '80s. What was the Polar Express? Well, it wasn’t a real train to start with, since it could seemingly transport kids from their bedrooms in upstate Michigan to the North Pole, but it was based on a train engine called Pere Marquette 1225 that the book’s author, Chris Van Allsburg, used to play on as a child. The number “1225” always reminded him of Christmas Day (i.e. the 25th of the 12th) and he used to imagine the magical train would take you from the snowy Midwest all the way to Santa Claus.
The Orient Express
The Orient Express is one of the few “real” trains on this list, and though it’s associated with mysteries, murder and intrigue, it was really just a normal international railway service - like the Eurostar of its time. The very first Orient Express was a seven-car “luxury” service, the brainchild of a wealthy Belgian fellow by the name of Georges Nagelmackers, who invited a bunch of cashed-up friends to travel overnight from Paris to Vienna, where they dined on things like oysters, game animals and entire buffets of desserts. Over time, the service expanded to go all the way to Constantinople (Istanbul) and some services started in Calais, meaning the train really did run through all of Continental Europe. It became most famous, obviously, after Agatha Christie published her murder mystery in 1934, and though the train is officially no more (blame European air travel), it remains one of the most famous and mysterious train journeys of our time.
Track 29 was the starting point for the Chattanooga Choo Choo, a fictional train appearing in the highly catchy (and mildly irritating) number written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for 1940s Hollywood film Sun Valley Serenade. They wrote it while travelling southbound on a small, wood-burning steam train, the Birmingham Special, but the song itself tells you about the glory of heading southbound from New York City to Chattanooga, Tennessee where apparently nothing could be finer than having dinner in the diner, eating ham and eggs while crossing some part of either North or South Carolina. Rhyming for the win!
City of New Orleans
Criss-crossing the US from north to south, the City of New Orleans was an Amtrak passenger train made famous by folk singer Arlo Guthrie (and later Willie Nelson) in the song of the same name. When the first train began operation in 1947, it was the longest daylight run in the US, heading from Chicago to the Louisiana Bayou “by the time the day is done”. It’s one of those great American anthems about lost dreams, soul searching and missed opportunity - in other words, exactly the kinds of things that run through your mind while staring wistfully out the window of a train.
Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends
There isn’t an '80s kid alive that didn’t grow up watching the adventures of Thomas, Henry and Gordon, who got into all sorts of mischief across the hills and valleys of the pleasant island of Sodor, their every huff and puff narrated by Ringo Starr. Thomas and the island itself are made up, a creation of the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who created the stories in the mid 1940s to distract his son who was sick in bed with the measles. After the bedtime stories became a mild obsession - the Good Rev started making model trains, wagons and coaches to go along with them - his wife suggested perhaps he seek out a publisher and turn his hobby into something profitable. He did, and in 1946, the first Thomas the Tank Engine book was released. It took another 40 years and a savvy producer at the BBC to see the TV potential, and the rest was animated history.
The Hogwarts Express
There are plenty of trains that travel from Kings Cross station to the Scottish countryside, but none as magical as the Hogwarts Express, accessed only by hurling yourself full-throttle through a brick wall onto platform 9¾. Author JK Rowling dreamed up the entire wizarding world of Harry Potter on the lengthy journey across the UK from north to south and began writing the first book as soon as she got home.
Satisfy your love of trains with Great British Railway Journeys, airing Fridays at 7:30pm on SBS.
Missed last week's episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand right here: