10 Best Ever Classic Films About Railway (Train) Travel

by on August 15, 2014

10 Best Ever Films About Rail Travel

The Film Critic David Gritten makes his choice of the best movies featuring trains and we suggest how you might try to recreate the journeys. Here are 10 movies in which trains are featured strongly, set in different parts of Britain or various destinations abroad. Even if you can’t still ride the trains depicted in these movies, you may still be able to visit the locations where they were shot.

1- The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952)

This story of stereotyped villagers, joining ranks to keep their branch line open, was dismissed on its release as a cosy minor Ealing comedy, but slowly gained in stature. History played a part: in the 1960s Dr Beeching’s swingeing cuts, ushering in the closure of thousands of British stations and lines, gave the film a nostalgic glow, evoking a time when train travel, through idyllic countryside, could be pure leisurely joy. Imagine. That sentiment lives on in the popularity of reopened branch lines throughout Britain. A digitally restored version of the film, marking its 60th anniversary.

2- The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy-drama sharply divided audiences and critics, but it’s a fine advertisement for luxury train travel in India. Three affluent American brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman), barely on speaking terms since their father’s death, board the titular train as a journey of spiritual rediscovery. It’s an emotional trip for three melancholy souls, unconsoled by wealth and even their absurdly exotic luggage. It looks ravishing, with stop-offs at a palace in Jodphur and the lakeside city of Udaipur.

3- Night Mail (1936)

This 25-minute British documentary masterpiece tracks the journey of an overnight LMS mail train from London to Scotland. Produced by the GPO Film Unit, it boasts a remarkable array of talent: it’s narrated by John Grierson and has music by Benjamin Britten and poetry from W H Auden, whose verse “This is the Night Mail crossing the border/Bringing the cheque and the postal order” cunningly suggests the sound of the steam train clattering along the tracks. Movingly, the film hints at how letters bring people separated by distance closer together.

4- Train Pulling into Station (1895)

No film in history has had such an astonishing effect on audiences as this apparently unremarkable 50-second short by Auguste and Louis Lumière. One of the first films ever screened for the public, it simply shows a train approaching La Ciotat, a coastal village near Marseille. The Lumières placed their camera close to the platform edge, and when viewers saw the footage they reportedly rushed from their seats, convinced that the train would burst from the screen and crush them.

The film is commemorated in the restoration of the world’s oldest existing cinema, the Eden in La Ciotat, which is due to be reopened next year by Steven Spielberg.


5- Brief Encounter (1945)

A great train movie with precious little footage of trains in motion. This evergreen classic stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as a middle-class couple, both married to others, who conduct a chaste, restrained (and doomed) romance involving weekly meetings, notably in the refreshment room of a railway station. They’re noble, moral and self-sacrificing – prized qualities in Britain in the aftermath of the war.

6- Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

A lavish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed whodunit, with the detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) and all 13 murder suspects present and correct aboard the snowbound luxury train. It boasts an absurdly starry cast list – Bacall, Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, Connery, Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave for starters. Preposterous, of course, but good fun, with lots of overripe acting. Its exterior scenes, even Istanbul station, were recreated in French locations.

7- The Railway Children (1970)

“Oh, my Daddy, my Daddy!” Can anyone remain unmoved by the line that made Jenny Agutter a lifelong British national treasure? She plays the eldest of three Edwardian children exiled with their mother to a house in the Yorkshire Dales when their father is wrongly accused of spying. There’s a railway at the bottom of the garden, which is the basis for their adventures – including a potentially lethal landslide on the track.

8- The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Few film-makers used trains and exploited their cinematic potential as frequently as Alfred Hitchcock. This thriller’s a delight, set on a pre-war train largely populated by foreigners, travelling through the Balkans but delayed by an avalanche. It made a star of Margaret Lockwood, as a young woman striking up a friendship with an elderly governess – who abruptly disappears. It also introduced the great duo Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne), cricket-loving duffers who keep their steely British resolve well hidden.



A curious but intriguing and beautifully shot black-and-white melodrama set aboard a train attacked by Chinese bandits. Marlene Dietrich is the heroine, a courtesan named Shanghai Lily, while Clive Brook is her old flame, a British officer. The director, Josef von Sternberg, eccentrically declared that he wanted everything about the film to evoke the rhythm of a speeding train – so its characters say their lines in sing-song, stop-go fashion. No one on the film went within a thousand miles of Shanghai; it was shot in Hollywood at Paramount Studios, though the glorious (and recently restored) Santa Fe Railroad Depot in San Bernardino, California stood in for a Chinese railway station.

10- Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Two big-screen images from this romantic epic immediately come to mind: the exquisite face of Julie Christie as its heroine, Lara, and the sight of smoke billowing from a train as it cuts through miles of snowbound Russian countryside between Moscow and the Urals. Aboard are the doctor-poet Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and members of his family, fleeing from possible arrest by the Bolsheviks.

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