Book readers, have you ever wondered what the deal with trains and stations in stories is? 

I, for one, was fascinated with train rides on books. For some reason, the books set on trains put me at ease. May be because as a child I wanted to board Hogwarts Express so badly or maybe because the only vehicle I can read on is a train with my vertigo issue.

In Sri Lanka, the train rides are not as magical as boarding Hogwarts Express (minus the dementor attacks). The ride is not smooth, the conditions of trains are not that great, we do not have A/C compartments (having an open window seat is usually a godsend). However, I love traveling by train if I am able to grab a proper seat. However, train rides are much more relaxing in a way I can understand the author’s fascination with them.

I recently listened to an episode on the podcast: Oloogies with Alie Ward about ferroequinology: The study of railways in general, but especially locomotives, Ferroequinology  (TRAINS) Encore with Matt Anderson, an American ferroequinologist. It was an enthralling episode if you are interested in learning a bit about the history of trains.

What is the appeal of train rides and stations in literature?

Train stations and train rides have been a popular setting for literature for centuries. There are several reasons for this.

It is a mystery element or a playground for crime

Trains are a mode of transportation that can take people to many different places. This makes them a perfect vehicle for stories that involve travel or mystery. Usually, for the murders that happen on trains, the culprit is limited to the passengers on board, yet there are plenty of nooks and crannies in which to hide evidence or commit murder. One of the most famous examples is Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which a group of travelers is stranded on a train after someone commits murder. Among the passengers is the famous detective Hercule Poirot who must find the killer before letting the passengers go.

The sense of community or isolation

Train stations are often busy and full of life, making for an interesting backdrop or setting in a story.

Many writers use train rides and station scenes in their stories in order to include additional minor characters. The book that sprang to mind was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Phileas Fogg, the main character, frequently takes long train rides around the globe in order to win a wager he placed on the feasibility of going around the world in under 80 days. These journeys enable them to see other sections of the world and meet new people, which adds numerous subplots and storylines to the main one.

Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home is an example of how train travels may also offer a sense of isolation. Despite the fact that it is a true narrative chronicled by Saroo Brierley, who as a toddler was inadvertently separated from his mother and brothers in India and ends up in Australia. He was just three years old when he boarded the train, unaware that he would be separated from his family.

A fantasy portal

I don’t believe any explanations are required for this part since we all know that the most renowned train trip into a magical realm is none other than the Hogwarts Express from the Harry Potter series. Even though there are other methods to go to Hogwarts, such as Floo powder, apparition, broom rides, or even smashing into the whomping willow in your father’s flying car, the Hogwarts Express is the major route we learn about in the very first book. J.K. Rowling even got her idea to write the Potter series while on a train ride from Manchester to London King’s Cross in 1990.

There are also other top-tier magical realism novels like 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami which involves a train station to cross the parallel universe, and another children’s classic The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg which is based on a train ride a young boy takes to the North Pole to meet Santa Clause. 

The idea is that, unlike any other mode of transportation, there is something about train travels that makes it seem plausible to be transported into fantasy realms.

A place to explore thoughts and transition

Train rides themselves can be relaxing or exciting, depending on the journey. This makes them the perfect setting for stories that explore different emotions and states of mind. I recently read Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North, a novel about a young Tamil who resides in Colombo and travels to North of Sri Lanka after receiving the news of the death of her grandmother’s caretaker, Rani. 

The majority of the novel is based on his thoughts and fragments of memories from the three-decade-long war, which took place mostly in the North. It’s a pretty contemplative novel that truly implores the post-war physiologies, in my opinion. The novel’s major goal was not to portray a specific plot focusing on individual characters but rather to give readers a look inside the mind of someone who had been personally and indirectly affected by the war.