Top 10 Trains in Movie History

by Eric Melin on August 24, 2010

in Top 10s

Today’s Top 10 list comes from Sean O’Connell, a NYC-based writer who has contributed Top 10 Worst Movie Neighbors, Top 10 Worst Movie Husbands, Top 10 Midget Performances, Top 10 Movie Rain Scenes, Top 10 Movie Brothers, and Top 10 Cameo Roles in Movies. If you have a Top 10 you’d like to contribute, email me at eric@scene-stealers.com. Enjoy Sean’s list of  the Top 10 Trains in Movie History.

The other day I went to go see “Toy Story 3″ with my three boys and was blown away by the opening train sequence. This got me to thinking – a lot of great Hollywood scenes take place on a locomotive. Sure, “Wings” won the very first Best Picture Oscar and there have been plenty of famous cinematic cars and at least one bus (“Speed”), but trains seem to be where the action is. Just take the train scene with Rebecca De Mornay in “Risky Business” for example; it helped get me through my pre-teen years. Like Guido the Killer Pimp would say, “I hear she’s got this thing about choo-choos.” When I started writing this list, I felt confident that it would be easy to select just 10 trains. I found out I was dead wrong – there were plenty of tough decisions.

So some honorable mentions are: “Some Like It Hot,” “Nighthawks,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “King Kong,” “The Fugitive,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Throw Momma From the Train,” and “Die Hard 3.”

Terror-Train 198010. New Year’s Eve masquerade party train from Terror Train (1980)

OK, before I get yelled at by a ton of people – I actually liked this movie. Sure it was cheesy 80s horror but it did its job. The basic premise is college students, one of them is teen horror queen Jamie Lee Curtis, get on a train dressed in costumes for a New Year’s Eve Costume Party. Of course, one of them is a murderer. (Who can forget the Groucho Marx disguise – classic!) The body count is high and lots of loud train noises as the terror train comes squealing around the tracks. I know what the first response will be: If there is a killer on the train why don’t they just get off? Yeah, I don’t have an answer, so lets get past that. The main reason this train makes the 10 spot is because when I was eight years old my parents took me to see “Stardust Memories” with Woody Allen. I was so bored that I begged them to let us leave and go next door to see “Terror Train” and they did! I don’t know what was a worse decision – dragging an eight-year old to a bizarre Woody Allen movie or letting him talk you into letting him see nudity and blood.

hogwarts express potter9. Hogwarts Express- all Harry Potter Movies (2001 – present)

I had a real hard time with this one. I am not really a big fan of the Harry Potter movies, although my fiance is, but I knew if I didn’t put this train on I would be attacked by all the Potter nerds … umm I mean fans (I love you Annie), like I was by all the Willow geeks when I didn’t mention “Willow” in my Top 10 Movie Midgets. Anyway, I guess it deserves a spot – it makes an appearance throughout the series and is kind of like its own character in the Potter universe. To start, it is where our happy trio, Harry, Ron Weasly and Hermoine Granger (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson) meet up for the first time. It is also where Draco kicks Potter in the face, and even plays a vital part of the plot when Harry and Ron miss the Express, leaving them in an all out action sequence flying an enchanted car through the muggle world, risking expulsion, trying to catch up to it.

back-to-the-future 3 train8. Locomotive 131 (1885 train)/ Jules Verne Train (1985 train) from Back to the Future 3 (1990)

There was only one way to end Robert Zemeckis’ wonderful trilogy – on a train. Our heroes Marty McFly and Dr. Emmet Brown (Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd) narrowly escape from Buford Tannen and his crew in time so they can go jack a train. See, the Delorean is out of gas and the only way to get up to the desired time traveling speed of 88 miles an hour is to have a train push. Doc made some special logs that will burn at a higher rate, so as to make the locomotive chug along faster. Everything is going along great until Doc’s stupid love interest Clara (Mary Steenburgen) shows up and ruins everything. She gets her dress stuck, falls upside down, and Doc has to risk his neck on a hoverboard to save her. The train eventually gets the Delorean up to 88, and Marty has to leave for 1985 without the Doc while the train goes crashing off into a ravine. BTTF 3 gets the number-eight spot because it has two cool trains. The Delorean is destroyed by a train upon Marty’s re-entry into 1985, which is ironic in and of itself and Doc returns in a new and improved time machine – a hover train. It is a steam-powered locomotive equipped with a flux capacitor. The hover train was actually outside Universal Florida’s “Back to the Future” ride for years.

GREAT-TRAIN-robbery 19797a. Train from The Great Train Robbery (1903)
7b. South Eastern Railway train from The Great Train Robbery a.k.a. The First Great Train Robbery (1979)

Come on, the 1903 film was one of the first narrative movies ever made -  it had to be on here. The plot of the movie is simple – bad guys rob train. Although it is only 12 minutes long, it is considered a classic nonetheless. It was one of the first films to have camera movement and to shoot on location. Also, it is possibly the first time a train ever derailed on film. The 1979 version is not a remake, it is actually written and directed by Michael Crichton. OK, so they are two different movies, but I had a hard time picking one and decided that since they share the same title, they can share the number-seven spot. I know it’s a stretch, but give me some slack. Anyway, this version stars Sean Connery as William Pierce who decides he is going to organize the theft of a train full of gold being shipped to the British Army. Connery did his own stunts atop of the moving train as he crawled from car to car.

 the PolarExpress train6. Polar Express from The Polar Express (2004)

“The Polar Express” was based on a children’s book written by Chris Van Allsburg and is slowly becoming a Christmas classic. This is also the only train on this list that is computer generated. This train can drive on lawns, slide on ice, carries silly waiters, survive ski slopes and house haunted hobos that can set up residence on the roof. The main reason I love this train is it goes straight to the North Pole. Any train that takes me straight to Santa is tops in my book, unlike the train from “Frosty the Snowman.” That train let them out in the middle of nowhere and cost way too much money. Also, why does it only take one day for trains to get to the North Pole? The reason the Polar Express does not rank higher is because of the creepy-looking performance capturing – Tom Hanks freaks me out in this movie. He should stick to being a toy cowboy.

taking of pelham1 2 3 poster5. #6 Lexington Avenue Local from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Let me start of by saying no offense to the 2009 remake, I just haven’t seen it yet. The Pelham One Two Three is a New York City #6 subway train. One day, four men enter the subway and hijack the train. The four hijackers call themselves Mr. Blue, Mr. Grey, Mr. Green, and Mr. Brown (Robert Shaw, Hector Elizondo, Martin Balsam and Earl Hindman). These guys were the original Reservoir Dogs. They take hostages, disconnect themselves from the rest of the train and demand $1 million or they will start executing one hostage every hour. The mayor agrees to pay the ransom and the hijackers jump off the train. The hostages are left on the Pelham as it set free at an alarmingly fast rate and turns into a runaway train. They are saved as the train eventually encounters a red light and grinds to a halt. Meanwhile, the hijackers meet their demise by greed, gunshots, 3rd rail electrocution and of all things – sneezing! “Pelham” is a fun movie and Walter Matthau is great as NYC Transit Authority policeman Lieutenant Zachary Garber.

murder orient express 19744. Orient Express from Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

1974 must have been a big year for train movies starring Martin Balsam. The rest of the cast was also a bunch of A-listers including Albert Finney, Sean Connery (to be in two other train movies later), Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Perkins, Richard Winmark, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, and Ingrid Bergman – who won the Academy Award for her performance as Greta. Any train that can carry this many celebrities and be nominated for six Oscars is an impressive locomotive. This movie, which is based on an Agatha Christie novel, centers around the fact that someone has stabbed a wealthy American businessman named Ratchett (Windmark) 12 times. Detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) investigates and it turns out – SPOILER – that everyone of the 12 suspects did it. Poirot decides that since Ratchett really wasn’t a nice guy (he was kidnapper) that he would offer a simple solution to the case that would absolve all the guilty people. REALLY?!? You just let them go?!? No punishment?!? Come up with some lame mafia excuse and it all goes away.

runaway_train 1985 poster3. Alaskan Rail Yard train from Runaway Train (1985)

This movie revolves around two escaped convicts from an Alaskan prison – Manny, played by Jon Voight and Buck, played by Eric Roberts – who board a train in a remote rail yard. Even though they don’t like each other, they stow away in a toilet room together. As the train sets off, the elderly conductor has a heart attack and dies. Before he fell off the train, he attempted to apply the emergency breaks but the runaway locomotive was too powerful. The brake shoes burned right off. Later, we realize that the two fugitives are not the only ones on the train. Turns out that train worker Sara (Rebecca De Morney) fell asleep in one of the cars – probably because she was tired from her last train scene in “Risky Business.” (Guido the Keller Pimp was right, she really does have a thing for choo-choos.) So anyway, the train dispatcher figures that since no one is on the train, why not let it go onto the mainline and let the computer-based system stop the train? It is now 2010, we have better technology now then we did in 1985, and I still wouldn’t come to this solution. How did this guy get a job as an Alaskan train dispatcher? Did Sarah Palin hire him? The train has many adventures, as you would expect from a runaway train, it almost crashes into another passenger train, a train trestle, and a chemical plant. Super Jail Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan) eventually jumps on the moving train from a police helicopter only to get handcuffed by Manny. Since death is better than jail, Manny saves Buck and Sara by detaching the engine from the rest of the train, sending he and the warden to certain death. Both Voight and Julia’s brother Eric were Oscar nominated for their roles in this. I know – once upon a time, Eric Roberts was nominated for an Oscar.

indiana jones circus train2. Dunn & Duffy Circus train from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

This was the best beginning of all the Indiana Jones movies. It starts when an adolescent Indiana rescues Coronado’s Cross from a group of bad guys who are looking to sell it to the man in white. Indiana believes it belongs in a museum instead. As he runs from the cave, he jumps onto his horse and starts his escape with the group of treasure hunters following him. It leads him to the Dunn & Duffy Circus Train, consisting of a freight car containing giraffes, several flatcars with circus supplies, the reptile boxcar, the rhinoceros car, the lion car, and a caboose with magician’s equipment. What is so great about this train (other than the fact that it carries circus animals) is that it helps illustrate four key developments in the life of Indiana Jones. First, it shows how Indiana got his fear of snakes. This happens as a result of him falling into a tank of snakes. Second and third, it explains how he gets the scar on his chin and how he knows how to use a bullwhip. He falls into the lion car and grabs the lion-tamer’s whip off the wall. Since this is his first time using a whip, he accidentally hits his chin – causing one of the most famous Hollywood scars since Frankenstein. Fourthly, it leads to the famous fedora . Indiana escapes the train after many run-ins with the bad guys. He runs straight home to tell his dad, Henry Jones Sr., what happened. When young Indiana is forced to give the cross up, the lead henchman gives Indiana his fedora. He tells him, “You lost today kid, but it doesn’t mean you have to like it!” Funny enough, Indiana’s dad was portrayed by Sean Connery- That man had a connection with three of the Top 10 trains. I really wanted this to be the number-one train, but it had such little screen time, I felt bad putting it there.

silver-streak train 19761. Silver Streak from Silver Streak (1976)

Greatness happened on this train: The first-ever teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. The movie actually serves well as a comedy, action, and murder-suspense film; sort of like “North by Northwest.” It all starts when book editor George Caldwell (Wilder) wants to take a trip that will leave him bored. So he buys a ticket for Silver Streak, an AM Road train traveling from L.A. to Chicago. George runs into art dealers who are trying to peddle fake Rembrandts. Apparently these dealers will do anything to protect their secret; even commit murder. Poor George stumbles upon the plan and is either thrown or jumps off the train, not once, not twice, but three times. Which leads to George classically screaming, “Son of a bitch!” every time he falls off the train. George eventually gets to a police station but is accused of murder instead. He meets a small-time thief named Grover T. Muldoon (Pryor) and they steal a patrol car and race back to Silver Streak. Since George is wanted for murder, he can’t just board the train. So instead Muldoon disguises him as a flamboyant black man in order to get past the police and on the train – this scene is hysterical. There are many shoot-outs on the train and even a decapitation. The end leads to yet another runaway train and George and Muldoon are forced to save the day by disconnecting the back cars from the engine. The police start to evacuate the Chicago train station just as the engine of Silver Streak comes crashing through the wall causing people to flee everywhere. On a side-note of movie trivia: The climatic train crash at the end of the film was actually shot in an airplane hanger.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Randall August 24, 2010 at 8:11 am

A top 10 train movie list without even a mention of Buster Keaton’s “The General” is pointless to me.

I would also have to mention the train sequence in “The Wrong Trousers,” the second “Wallace and Gromit” film.

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2 jess August 24, 2010 at 9:32 am

Ditto to what Randall said.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3xh108cLbo

I mean, really.

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3 sean August 24, 2010 at 10:04 am

All right- relax people. The General was a miss on my part. I hadn’t seen it since I was 5 yrs old. I am more of a Chaplin & Lloyd person, so I havn’t seen a Keaton film in years. It slipped my mind, let’s not start the bashing b/c of one miss.

Randall, I wouldn’t go as far as to say a list is pointless just b/c it doesn’t have one of your favorite movies on there. Take a deep breath.

Jess, you gave me a really! WOW!! So much hatered in the world- over trains!

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4 jess August 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

Ha! No hatred – just couldn’t believe it didn’t get a mention.

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5 Matthew August 24, 2010 at 10:38 am

Umm, From Russia with Love?

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6 Greg August 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

Good list. I’m partial to the Darjeeling Limited, but realize that could be a minority opinion. Strangers on a Train is a better movie than any on the list, but the train doesn’t really play into the film after the opening sequences so I understand the omission.

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7 Eric Melin August 24, 2010 at 12:26 pm

I love when passion gets mistaken for or morphs into anger!

The best thing about these lists is that they generate discussion. They take a long time to put together and you inevitably will miss something, but the greatest thing about it is that you’ll also include something that others would have forgotten. I’d love to see Jess and Randall write a Top 10 list of their own–that’d be great!

For instance, The Darjeeling Limited. Nice catch, Greg! It’s still my least favorite Wes Anderson film, but the train itself is in the damn title! And, oh, those Kinks songs!

As far as silent comics goes, I’m definitely a Keaton person too. Iola, KS represent!

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8 Trey Hock August 24, 2010 at 3:39 pm

No worries, Sean. Buster will get his due. The General is #18 on the AFI 100 Movies list.

Although I am a little confused, were there no trains in Planes, Trains and Automobiles? And as silly as it seems I would probably bump the ol’ Hogwart’s Express up a bit. It is perhaps one of the most recognizable contemporary film trains. Not my personal favorite, but it’s a biggie right now.

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9 Randall August 25, 2010 at 3:55 pm

“More of a Chaplin & Lloyd person” doesn’t really help your case. But I keed, I keed. (I like them, too–just not nearly as much as I like Keaton.)

“Pointless” may have overstated my position, but really, missing The General was no small oversight. It’s not just “one of [my] favorite movies”–it’s an acknowledged classic that should be at the top of any list authoritatively titled “Top 10 Trains in Movie History.” Keaton was a train enthusiast in his personal life, too.

It’s not hatred, it’s disbelief.

Some other favorite movies with prominent train scenes:

Shadow of a Doubt
North By Northwest
Von Ryan’s Express

(But I wouldn’t take anyone to task for missing those.)

I also really loved this documentary called Riding the Rails I saw over 10 years ago, about train-hoppers during the Great Depression.

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10 Brian August 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Midnight Meat Train!

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11 Mexicola August 25, 2013 at 4:15 pm

”Midnight Meat Train!”

+1

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12 microbuss December 14, 2013 at 11:13 am

Lets not forget about Unstoppable, Money Train, Wild Wild West (tv series & the movie)
Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade was filmed on the Cumbres & Toltec Senic Railroad a 3 foot narrow gauge line
Siver Streak was filmed in Canada using CP Rail equipment DUH XD

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13 Eric Melin December 17, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Great additions – thanks!

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14 Victor July 8, 2016 at 5:21 pm

Unstoppable (2010) was great, where an engineer jumps off a moving train at full power to switch a switch. He can’t get back on. If the train is not slowed, it will definitely derail on the treacherous Stanton Curve. Northbound train 1206 uncouples its engine and chases 777 (the runaway), couples, and slams on the brakes, barely making the curve. Good movie, my heart was beating quickly the whole time.
Goof: 1206 is said to have 5000 hp. It really has 3000 hp.

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