“Midnight on the Great Western”, by Thomas Hardy Hardy’s poem is a vignette of Victorian public transport, preserved forever. By “the roof-lamp’s oily flame” a boy is seen half asleep in his third-class seat, his ticket stuck in his hat band, “Bewrapt past knowing to what he was going, / Or whence he came”.
Possession, by AS Byatt There comes a crucial moment in Byatt’s tale of two modern-day academics who have discovered the love letters of two famous Victorian poets, when the story suddenly shifts to the 19th century. “The man and the woman sat opposite each other in the railway carriage.” The train is the transport of illicit love.
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith Who would an unhappy husband with an unfaithful wife meet on a train? In a Patricia Highsmith novel, a helpful psychopath, naturally. Cuckold Guy gets talking to loopy Bruno and is offered a deal: I’ll kill your wife, if you murder my dad; with no connection between us, the police will never track us down.
Stamboul Train, by Graham Greene On a train from Ostend to Istanbul, assorted characters from Greeneland – an exiled politician, a beautiful woman, a journalist, a fleeing criminal – are thrown together with amorous and violent consequences. There are plot complications in Vienna and desperate dangers at a stop in Serbia, where Greene’s protagonist, the businessman Myatt, finds himself plunged into murderous political rivalries.
Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie Rather more luxurious than Greene’s Stamboul train, Christie’s express takes its characters down the same tracks to a dénouement that must be reached before the Bosphorus. A murder is committed, and Poirot is on board.
Breakheart Pass, by Alistair Maclean Maclean liked to seal off a group of characters in perilous circumstances and reveal their hidden allegiances. Breakheart Pass takes place on a train travelling through a Nevada winter in the 1870s, with a murderer being escorted to a remote garrison, where disaster has apparently struck. There’s a politician, a doctor, a pretty girl . . . who is the baddie?
Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kästner Young Emil has been sent by his poor widowed mother on a train from his provincial home to Berlin, with money for his grandmother pinned inside his jacket. In the train he is befriended by Herr Grundeis, who eventually drugs him and steals the money. But in Berlin, the indefatigable Emil and some local boys get on Grundeis’s trail . . .
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling You meet your best friends on trains. From Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross, the school train flies off to Hogsmeade. Our young wizard makes many such journeys, but none so memorable as the first, on which he meets his boon companions, Ron and Hermione.
“Night Mail”, by WH Auden Auden’s invocation of the mail train travelling from London to Glasgow was written to fit the famous GPO documentary film. Sometimes close to doggerel on the page, it comes to life in performance, gathering speed as the train descends from the moorlands towards the Clyde. “Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes, / Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces / Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen”.
“The Whitsun Weddings”, by Philip Larkin Larkin’s poem follows his own common journey from Hull to London, the train dawdling across flatlands, “All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense / Of being in a hurry gone”. The journey presents fleeting snapshots of other lives, and a vision of all those weddings culminating on provincial platforms.