Film scholars will combat back and forth about the meaning and purpose of trains in film. I realize how ridiculous and over-the-top this may seem, but what else are they/we supposed to do with our time? I’ve heard one of my classmates argue that trains symbolize actual film stock or celluloid as train tracks have a similar appearance. One of my professors argues that trains in a film are referential to an early film created by the Lumiere Bros. called The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. I will ascribe to his theory, but only when discussing Hugo (2011) which as an arrival at a train station (as well as train wreck that actually occurred at Montparnasse in the late 1800s.
Above those theories, I am reminded of a quote from Inception (2010), “I’ll tell you a riddle. You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don’t know for sure.” This quote, in my mind, sums up the purpose of trains in film. Trains take the passengers from station to station in order to get far away from something in their life; oftentimes trains are a means of escape. This uncertainty Mal speaks of in Inception is the hope for renewal as passengers have an idea of what they want in their life, but they’re never sure if the train will take them there.
My favourite film involving a train is Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) and I believe it is a good example of trusting a train to induce transition in the story of a character’s life. Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, is assuming a new identity against his own will, and he decides to go along with the charade. In order to escape law enforcement and discover the true identity of George Kaplan, Roger must take a train to develop and change. The most significant scenes of character transition takes place on a moving train. He is introduced to Eva Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who just happens to be in cahoots with Phillip Vandamm (James Mason), the man who is after the non-existent George Kaplan, and enjoys a dinner with her in the dining car. Their experiences on the train influence the rest of the film as Roger learns who his friends and enemies are in the narrative. A more contemporary example would be Harry Potter and the necessary Hogwarts Express. Harry meets his closest friends on the train and the transition from the Muggle world to the Wizarding World is reliant upon the beginning of his adventure aboard a train.
Now, having read all of this (and I thank you for being so patient), if you believe a train is just a train and it has no significance, well, that’s a possibility, too.