Commuter and Transfer Stations In Art

Liverpool Street Station by Edward Bawden, colour lithograph, 1961

These illustrations are views of the outside of commuter stations — train stations, lorry transfer stations. (I’m not including here illustrations of the insides of commuter stations.)

Commuter stations are interesting because they fall into the category of ‘liminal spaces’. When creating stories, writers are typically advised to avoid the transit scenes. This is good general advice, because “Transit can make for a slow and ordinary beginning unless something quite odd is going on or we have an entertaining voice“.

On the other hand, these spaces are such ‘nothing’ spaces that if storytellers and artists linger with purpose, showing the details normally overlooked as we rush from place to place in our daily lives, the description of a commuter station can defamiliarise the everyday experience of living.

Flat Tire at the Commuter Station 1960 Amos Sewell (1901-1983)
Flat Tire at the Commuter Station 1960 Amos Sewell (1901-1983)
New Yorker cover train station by Garrett Price
New Yorker cover train station by Garrett Price
New Yorker cover train station night by Garrett Price
New Yorker cover train station night by Garrett Price
Charles Saxon, cover for The New Yorker, 1959
Charles Saxon, cover for The New Yorker, 1959
John Phillip Falter (American, 1910-1982) Commuters in the Rain 1961
John Phillip Falter (American, 1910-1982) Commuters in the Rain 1961
When the railway is closed by snow... Rowland Emett, Punch 1953
When the railway is closed by snow… Rowland Emett, Punch 1953
Martin Lewis (1881 - 1962) 1931 'Snow On The El' (mentor of Edward Hopper)
Martin Lewis (1881 – 1962) 1931 ‘Snow On The El’ (mentor of Edward Hopper)
MARC FERNAND SEVERIN (1906-1987) Poster Art 1938
MARC FERNAND SEVERIN (1906-1987) Poster Art 1938
Grace Golden (1904-1993) lorry station
Grace Golden (1904-1993)
Théophile Poilpot - Embarkation of La Normandie at Havre 1889
Théophile Poilpot – Embarkation of La Normandie at Havre 1889
Erskine Nicol - The Emigrants 1864
Erskine Nicol – The Emigrants 1864

Train stations aren’t what they used to be. Take a look at a few then-and-now photos of European and American terminals and you’ll notice a few things beyond the usual observations of technological innovation and increased patronage. First, the grandeur of the older stations has made way for more sterile architecture, as in the cases of St. Pancras and Roma Termini. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the interiors of modern stations bear an uncanny resemblance to shopping malls. Gone is the notion of the train station as a transient space: no more in and out; no more creaky, dark corridors – a proliferation that can only conclude with in-station condos – but somewhere within the riff raff, terminal newsstands still provide a small window into the world of a literature they came to define. 

Rethinking The Littérature De Gare: Crime Fiction In France And The U.S.
from Graham Greene’s The Little Steamroller (1955), illustrated by Dorothy Craigie (1901-1971)
‘Christmas at Basingstoke’ by Robin Pinnock railway platform station
‘Christmas at Basingstoke’ by Robin Pinnock
Norman Rockwell, Color Study for Breaking Home Ties, 1954, cover for The Saturday Evening Post
Norman Rockwell, Color Study for Breaking Home Ties, 1954, cover for The Saturday Evening Post
Adolph K. Kronengold commuter station
Adolph K. Kronengold
'Fairies' by 'Moebius' Jean Giraud (French Artist,Cartoonist 1938-2012)
‘Fairies’ by ‘Moebius’ Jean Giraud (French Artist,Cartoonist 1938-2012)
Emil André Schefer (1876-1942) 1925
Emil André Schefer (1876-1942) 1925
Douglas MacPherson illustration of Piccadilly Circus underground station, a crosscut from 1928
1942, At the Station by Dean Cornwell (1892-1960)
1942, At the Station by Dean Cornwell (1892-1960)

Header illustration: Liverpool Street Station by Edward Bawden, colour lithograph, 1961

Lemon girl young adult novella


Train Stations and Platforms in Art

Frederick Bacon Barwell - Parting Words, Fenchurch Street Station
Frederick Bacon Barwell – Parting Words, Fenchurch Street Station
London, a pilgrimage, Gustave Doré, 1869
London, a pilgrimage, Gustave Doré, 1869
Walter Crane 1845 - 1915 London Town Train Station First Class 1883
Walter Crane 1845 – 1915 London Town Train Station First Class 1883
Walter Crane 1845 - 1915 London Town The Underground Railway 1883
Walter Crane 1845 – 1915 London Town The Underground Railway 1883
An early illustration showing the proliferation of advertising posters targeting rail passengers. C 1852
An early illustration showing the proliferation of advertising posters targeting rail passengers. C 1852
The Terminus (Penzance Station) Oil painting by Alexander Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947)
The Terminus (Penzance Station) Oil painting by Alexander Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947)
Stanhope Forbes (1857 - 1947) The terminus Penzance station
Stanhope Forbes (1857 – 1947) The terminus Penzance station (detail)
Liverpool Street Station by Marjorie Sherlock 1917
Liverpool Street Station by Marjorie Sherlock 1917
David Halliwell ‘Lamplight’
David Halliwell ‘Lamplight’
Arthur Getz The New Yorker cover October 7, 1967
Arthur Getz The New Yorker cover October 7, 1967
William Powell Frith - The Railway Station
William Powell Frith – The Railway Station
Yasui Koyata (1905-1985) 1932 illustration The Subway for the Japanese children's magazine Kodomo No Kun train
Yasui Koyata (1905-1985) 1932 illustration The Subway for the Japanese children’s magazine Kodomo No Kun
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson
Adolph K. Kronengold (1900-1986) 1929 New Yorker cover
Adolph K. Kronengold (1900-1986) 1929 New Yorker cover
by Christian Robinson for 'Milo Imagines the World' by Matt de la Peña
by Christian Robinson for ‘Milo Imagines the World’ by Matt de la Peña
Morning Noises by Alain Grée, Wonder Books, Inc. 1962 train platform
Morning Noises by Alain Grée, Wonder Books, Inc. 1962
Perry Barlow (American, 1892-1977) leaving for summer camp train platform
Perry Barlow (American, 1892-1977) leaving for summer camp train platform
Peter Arno The New Yorker, September 12, 1942
Peter Arno The New Yorker, September 12, 1942
train station by Arthur Getz (1913-1996)
by Arthur Getz (1913-1996)
Arthur Getz, 1967
Arthur Getz, 1967
1936 May, cover by John A. Cook train
1936 May, cover by John A. Cook
1942 November, cover by Francis Criss train WW2
1942 November, cover by Francis Criss train WW2
‘Waiting for a Train’ 1955 by Thornton Utz
‘Waiting for a Train’ 1955 by Thornton Utz
Romantic Adventure Library No. 781 train platform
Romantic Adventure Library No. 781 train platform
James Downie
James Downie
Kevin Walsh
Kevin Walsh
Helen Oxenbury - Through the Looking Glass
Helen Oxenbury – Through the Looking Glass
Norman Rockwell CRESTWOOD TRAIN STATION Saturday Evening Post November 16, 1946
Norman Rockwell CRESTWOOD TRAIN STATION Saturday Evening Post November 16, 1946
Jeff Rowland (1964-2018)
Jeff Rowland (1964-2018)
Union Train Station, Chicago, Christmas shopping, 1944, Norman Rockwell
Union Train Station, Chicago, Christmas shopping, 1944, Norman Rockwell
Campaign Train by Arthur Getz (1913-1996) for New Yorker cover 1948 but not used
Campaign Train by Arthur Getz (1913-1996) for New Yorker cover 1948 but not used
Lemon girl young adult novella


Symbolism Of Ships and Boats In Literature

‘The Tyger Voyage’ by Richard Adams, illustrated by a Nicola Bayley (1976) ship in a cove

Ships, boats and other sea vessels are symbolically significant across literature. How are they used and what do they symbolise?

The ship: ‘a living, micro-cultural, micro-political system in motion’

Paul Gilroy in “John Howison’s New Gothic Nationalism and Transatlantic Exchange”, Early American Literature

Ship stories are almost always mythic in structure and this includes stories of shipwrecks. In mythic stories, a character either goes on a journey (or stays in one place), meets a variety of allies and foes, has some kind of big revelation (Anagnorisis) then returns home (or finds a new one) as a changed person.

Both Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe eventually return home. Gulliver’s journey is Odyssean whereas Robinson Crusoe plonks himself in one place (perhaps on an island). Robinson Crusoe is such an iconic example of the ‘plonk yourself in once place’ adventure that we now refer to such stories as the Robinsonnade.


The Age of Sail lasted from the mid 15th century until the mid 19th century, depending on who you ask. Some say from the mid 16th century. Sailing ships are truly ancient inventions, but during the Age of Sail ships started to be used for warfare. Advances in navigation happened. Steam ships happened. Once steam ships happened, sailing ships were no longer needed. In the early 1870s HMS Devastation came along. This was the first battleship without sails. This marked the end of The Age of Sail.

The Golden Age of Sail is a similar phrase, and refers more specifically to that time between the mid 19th century and the early 20th century when sailing ships got about as big as they were ever going to get.

Before the twentieth century, sailing was far more dangerous than it is now. Some of this was to do with the inherent danger of the sea.

Common ways to die on a ship:

  • Turbulent weather
  • Collision with another ship in one of the crowded estuaries
  • Running aground because of navigation errors
  • Fire to the waterline due to spontaneous ignition of flammable cargo

But sometimes sailors were deliberately killed by greedy and powerful humans. To collect on lucrative insurance, shipping companies regularly sent overloaded ships out to sea, manned, of course, intending for them to sink. Who’d dare get on such a ship? The sailors were often recruited from the streets. These were society’s ‘disposable’ people, sent off on a sure death mission.

Between 1879 and 1899 alone, 11,000 British lives were lost at sea across 1153 missing ships. For more on that see David Marcombe, The Victorian Sailor, 1985.

The Victorian Sailor by David Marcombe


This is a phrase from Hans Blumenberg in Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a Metaphor for Existence, 1997.

Shipwreck with Spectator traces the evolution of the complex of metaphors related to the sea, to shipwreck, and to the role of the spectator in human culture from ancient Greece to modern times.

Shipwreck with Spectator traces the evolution of the complex of metaphors related to the sea, to shipwreck, and to the role of the spectator in human culture from ancient Greece to modern times. The sea is one of humanity’s oldest metaphors for life, and a sea journey has often stood for our journey through life. We all know the role that shipwrecks can play in this journey, and at some level we have all played witness to others’ wrecks, standing in safety and knowing that there is nothing we can do to help, yet fixed comfortably or uncomfortably in our ambiguous role as spectator. We see layer upon layer revealed in the meaning humans have given to these metaphors; and we begin to understand what metaphors can do that more straightforward modes of expression cannot.

He’s talking about all those metaphors we associate cross-culturally with ships:

  • Ship wrecks on the high sea
  • The juxtaposing safety of harbour
  • Storms (the crises of life)
  • Doldrums (the downtimes of life)

Often the representation of danger on the high seas serves only to underline the comfort and peace, the safety and serenity of the harbour in which a sea voyage reaches its end.

Hans Blumenberg, Shipwreck with Spectator

Of course, any web of metaphor can be subverted by a storyteller. Dracula was in fact a subversion of ship narratives, reflecting a change of attitude that was happening in the last decade of the 1800s.

Dracula was the anti-Ship story in the same way post WW2 Westerns are in fact anti-Westerns. In Dracula, Bram Stoker refused to glorify the mighty ship. Demeter, which transports the vampiric Count to Whitby, is not exactly Victorian romantic. That entire journey is a desperate struggle. There’s madness and horror and other Gothic tropes.

This story marked a shift in British identity, just as anti-Westerns marked a shift in American identity. Seafarers (and white pioneers in America) weren’t embarking upon a heroic and glorious enterprising journey at all. Very often, they were going to their death. Even if they survived, the realities of travel were not a fun time. Most people didn’t get rich. Imperial attitudes led to downfall when faced with unfamiliar seas and landscapes.

The Demeter of Dracula isn’t a literal ghost ship within the world of the story. This ship is made of solid ship stuff. But by the time she gets to Whitby, the vampire has attacked everyone onboard. So for story purposes we’re still talking about a ghost ship. The Demeter is still a vessel which allows audiences to contemplate that fuzzy border between life and death. All ships exist in this borderland, it’s just some are more ghostlike than others.


If Noah’s Ark existed, it would have looked more like a massive floating crate than like a storybook boat, but illustrators clearly enjoy creating a more aesthetically pleasing ship.

Spring clean on Noah’s Ark, 1925 by William Heath Robinson, 1872 to 1944


Just as the image of billowing sails against a backdrop of clear sky can evoke these ideals of liberty and human ingenuity, the life at sea, at the mercy of Nature, is one very much grounded in age-old tradition and deep-seated superstition. As in both “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Byron’s “Darkness”, the austere images of stranded and wrecked ships serve as grim reminders of the essential frailty of the human endeavor.

Ships (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Darkness”)


Metonymy: when a word, name, or expression is used as a substitute for something else closely associated. For example, Canberra is a metonym for the Australian government.

“This ship…is England. So it’s every hand to his rope or gun. Quick’s the word and sharp’s the action! After all, surprise is on our side.”

Master & Commander


In the Ancient Greek myth about Minotaur, King Minos and the Labyrinth of Crete, Theseus, son of Aegeus decided to be one of the seven young men that would go to Crete. He planned to kill the Minotaur and end the human sacrifices to the monster.

Theseus promised his father King Aegeus that he would put up white sails coming back from Crete, allowing him to know in advance that he was coming back alive. The boat would return with the black sails if Theseus was killed.

Theseus did manage to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne’s thread he managed to retrace his way out. Unfortunately, Theseus was not a great person. He left Ariadne behind on the shore even though she saved his life, and was so drunk after celebrating his victory that he forgot to change the sails. His father therefore saw the ship approaching and assumed his son was dead. King Aegeus suicided by drowing himself in the sea, now called the Aegean Sea.

The premature, completely unnecessary suicide is utilised in a number of modern stories including The Mist by Stephen King and in one of the stories of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, directed by the Coen Brothers.


In the most general sense, a ‘vehicle’. Bachelard notes that there are a great many references in literature testifying that the boat is the cradle rediscovered (and the mother’s womb). There is also a connexion between the boat and the human body.

A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot


Most people like paintings of ships. You probably know someone with a painting of a ship on their wall. Perhaps we like to imagine the adventure promised by ships… but only while cosied up inside our own safe homes.

Harald Skogsberg depicts a cosy family mealtime, with a painting of a ship on the wall of the dining room.

The painting below by N.C. Wyeth is a wonderful chimera of the Dream Boat (apologies to Gaston Bachelard). Ships and boats featured prominently in 20th century literature aimed at boys. “Imagination” is an amalgamation of the main seafaring archetypes:

"Imagination", N.C. Wyeth, 1922.
“Imagination”, N.C. Wyeth. The boy is Wyeth’s son. Originally published as a Ladies Home Journal magazine cover for March of 1922.

(The following year, Norman Rockwell painted Lands of Enchantment, perhaps inspired by Wyeth’s cover.)

Continue reading “Symbolism Of Ships and Boats In Literature”

The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

George William Joy - The Baywater Omnibus 1895

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? In stories, trains play a functional role, getting your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Perhaps we encounter storytellers on trains more than in any other place.

On Trains You Lose Your Regular Self

The train is a perfect place to pretend to be a different person. He said he was French. He was on his way to work on his Ph.D. in Art History in San Antonio. He had grim opinions on organized religion. He could have been flirting with me, but more likely he was just bored.

Secrets of the New York City Subway

The Train As Heterotopia

Restored vintage travel poster Express Ease - The Harrogate Pullman by George Harrison, England. Published in the 1920s
Restored vintage travel poster Express Ease – The Harrogate Pullman by George Harrison, England. Published in the 1920s
Jean-Raoul Naurac (1878-1932) poster art 1927
Jean-Raoul Naurac (1878-1932) poster art 1927

Trains are an example of a heterotopia. For more on that see this post. French philosopher Michael Foucault had quite a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because [1] it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which [2] one can go from one point to another, and then it is also [3] something that goes by.


Some modern kids might not know what’s going on in the painting below, partly because children are more supervised these days and mostly advised against playing around train tracks.

The Three Pennies by Rob Rowland
The Three Pennies by Rob Rowland
Train track in Tokyo Drifter
Train track in Tokyo Drifter

Trains Are Masculine-coded Spaces

Modern audiences are unlikely to feel this way, but trains initially excluded women.

Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and director of Intel Corporation’s Interaction and Experience Research, says the burgeoning use of the steam engine in the early 19th century incited an unusual panic. Some “experts” believed that women’s bodies weren’t fit to travel at 50 mph. “They thought that our uteruses would fly out of our bodies as the train accelerated to that speed,” says Bell.

Women’s Day
Augustus Leopold Egg – The Travelling Companions 1862

Trains Are Multi-layered, Liminal Spaces

Multi-layered places and objects are especially useful for creating a symbol web. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

Epiphanies Happen On Trains

Trains have a special position outside other forms of public transport. It’s no accident that Neal of Planes, Trains and Automobiles has his epiphany while riding a train. Compared to planes and automobiles, trains provide a meditative calm.

Neal has his epiphany on a train

This is why here in Australia, The Indian Pacific: Australia’s Longest Train Journey proved such a hit for SBS, and led to a flurry of train bookings from enthusiastic viewers. The show is 3 hours of footage out a train window.

In her 2014 film Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhaven bookends the story of a young woman trying to get over a recent breakup with scenes on a train. It is difficult to show epiphanies on screen. A lot relies on the skill of the actor, but the setting also helps. The train journey shows that the main character is ‘moving on’, but emotionally.

Trains As Metaphor For Passing Time

Lior’s song below is a love song, assuring the object of affection that “We’ll grow old together.” Lior also tells us that “time moves like a train”.

In fact, time moves nothing like a train. That is simply our human experience of it. For more on that read The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene.

Symbolically, we think of rivers in the same way we think of trains. When it comes to love and fate, it seems we like to think time moves forward in one inevitable line, and that our lives will look just like that long, smooth, uninterrupted train track that lies ahead.

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

For cynical twenty-three-year-old August, moving to New York City is supposed to prove her right: that things like magic and cinematic love stories don’t exist, and the only smart way to go through life is alone. She can’t imagine how waiting tables at a 24-hour pancake diner and moving in with too many weird roommates could possibly change that. And there’s certainly no chance of her subway commute being anything more than a daily trudge through boredom and electrical failures.

But then, there’s this gorgeous girl on the train.

Included in this symbolism: The idea that the past is the past, and it’s time to let the past go.

A train has a poor memory: it soon puts all behind it.

Ray Bradbury, “The Lake”.

The classic poster art illustration below is from a time when three competing technologies of rail transport served as clear reminders of the rate of human progress. The artist Leslie Ragan juxtaposes human technology against nature’s beauty.

Leslie Ragan, likely commissioned by the New York Central Line c.1930
Leslie Ragan, likely commissioned by the New York Central Line c.1930
The 20th Century Limited passenger train
The 20th Century Limited passenger train
Illustration of the Pacemaker, identiable partly due to the Art Deco cowling by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss
Illustration of the Pacemaker, identiable partly due to the Art Deco cowling by industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss
SNCF Class 232 painting by Émile André Schefer  (1896–1942)
SNCF Class 232 painting by Émile André Schefer (1896–1942)

Trains In Utopian Fantasy For Children

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train from The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Train from The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatisation of spiritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphorical as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson

Train Stations As Beginnings and Endings (Hellos and Goodbyes)

Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964)
Julius Ussy Engelhard (1883-1964)
Matthew’s moral dilemma: Does he take home this girl when he and his sister really needed a boy?

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is often the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform. You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations. A bus station marks the end of a student-teacher relationship in Mr Holland’s Opus. A bus station makes the end of a housekeeper’s employ with a problematic man in Hud. There is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life. Symbolically, these platforms are functioning as crossroads.

Another resonant parting of ways (largely inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret with no hope) is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

Angela Barrett’s Illustration from ‘Anna Karenina’ novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
Angela Barrett’s Illustration from ‘Anna Karenina’ novel by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Trains As Temporary Home

Russian illustrator Anna Desnitskaya
Russian illustrator Anna Desnitskaya

Ghost Trains

Like motels, trains are a little bit like home, but not your home. They therefore fall into the uncanny valley of home, and we can’t help but think of all the other people who have been in our seat before us and after us.

Jupiter Jones, Bob Andrews and Pete Crenshaw win a radio contest for tickets on The Ghost Train, a passenger train traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans over a 6 day period with a promise that passengers will “see the ghosts of the dead men found in the locomotive!”. As it is summer, they get permission to travel unaccompanied just as long as they agree to obey the train personnel.

The trip begins inauspiciously with a badly-performed disappearance of the rear locomotive, and seems to go downhill for the boys after that.

Trains As Contra-Symbol

The symbolism of a train can be milked any which way by a storyteller. The train can feel at once oppressive but also afford freedom. The best example of this contradiction in action is perhaps Japan.

Oh to be on a train, travelling to who knows where…

Originally tweeted by Ghibliotheque – A Podcast About Studio Ghibli (@ghibliotheque) on May 12, 2020.

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Japan is famous (infamous?) for its pushers, but pushers also existed in New York:

In the early 20th century, New York subways actually had attendants, colloquially called “sardine-packers,” to physically cram people in. The Japanese famously employed uniformed, white-gloved “shiri oshi” — meaning “tushy pushers” — to do the same during rush hour. A pusher in Tokyo told The Times in 1995, “If their back is toward us, it’s easier, but if they’re facing us, it’s harder because there’s no proper spot to push them, though we try to push their bags or something else they are holding. In any case, we always first say, ‘We will push you.’” Once the trains left the station, the attendants used long, hooked poles to recover shoes and other items that had fallen on the track. Said another pusher, back in 1964, “I really wonder how so many of those girls manage to go to work with one shoe.”


Trains are thereby seen as oppressive, but also afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

For passengers inside, trains are a safe form of travel. But in Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

The image of the body tied to a train track reminds us that trains are in fact dangerous, if you’re near the tracks. When characters walk down the tracks our blood pressure rises a little. The audience doesn’t know when a train is about to turn up.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

Trains As Dangerous Monsters

Illustration by Italian artist Waltz Molina (1915-1997).

Sometimes trains seem like dangerous monsters because they travel above us, on elevated tracks.

John Sloan, Six O'Clock, Winter (The Third Avenue “El”), 1912 train
John Sloan, Six O’Clock, Winter (The Third Avenue “El”), 1912 train
The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman cover
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson archway
In The Train with Uncle Mac a Ladybird Book illustrated by WC Watson archway

But trains can also feel menacing and ominous when we see them from worm’s eye view.

Take Me To the Flying Scotsman leaves King's Cross at 10 am every weekday
Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945), known as N. C. Wyeth, was an American artist and illustrator. He was the pupil of artist Howard Pyle. He was killed with his grandchild while crossing a train track
Newell Convers Wyeth (October 22, 1882 – October 19, 1945), known as N. C. Wyeth, was an American artist and illustrator. He was the pupil of artist Howard Pyle. He was killed with his grandchild while crossing a train track.

For passengers, trains are one of the safer forms of transport. But trains pose a danger for anyone crossing their path. Like a mechanical horror monster who just won’t stop, a train literally can’t stop at short notice.

The New Yorker Magazine - December 17, 1955. Art by Arthur Getz . This image subverts the idea of trains as powerful by mixing a 'power shot' with images of children in the background, miniaturising this powerful engine.
The New Yorker Magazine – December 17, 1955. Art by Arthur Getz . This image subverts the idea of trains as powerful by mixing a ‘power shot’ with images of children in the background, miniaturising this powerful engine.

Trains As Loneliness, Though Surrounded By People

The worst kind of loneliness is when you’re surrounded by people. On a crowded train, etiquette dictates we avoid others’ gaze, don’t speak unless necessary.

Cartoon by Saul Steinberg

Trains Are Fast

Contemporary travellers won’t associate trains with speed. The bullet trains in Japan are pretty fast, but planes are always faster. Earlier audiences didn’t feel this way about trains at all. For them, over a fairly brief period of human history, trains were the epitome of speed.

The 1923 advertisement below is selling a super-fast Olivetti typewriter by comparing it to the speed of a train.

Nikolai Zhukov, 1937 Shepetovka-Baku in 55 hours
Nikolai Zhukov, 1937 Shepetovka-Baku in 55 hours

Trains As Symbols of Socioeconomic Class

There’s no better modern example of a train used to highlight social inequality than Snowpiercer, first a film, now a TV show.

Apart from trains, other forms of public transport push rich and poor people together onto the same small vessel, most notably planes and ships. This turns the vehicle of transportation into a microcosm of society.

Rapid transit to Sheol--where we are all going, according to the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix (1888)
Rapid transit to Sheol–where we are all going, according to the Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix (1888). This “Sheolic Motors” train has special cars for lawyers, journalists, clergy, artists, theater people, literary people, members of “sassiety”, and even the “Dem. & Rep. combine”. There are “no return tickets”.

In Western Australia a man managed to get stuck in the gap. There was a happy ending — he was freed after about 15 minutes, without injury. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t really think about all those echoey announcements warning us to mind the gap, and you may have even peered at the gap at one point, wondering how anyone could possibly get their foot stuck down there, except for maybe a toddler.

Public Transport Authority spokesman David Hynes … it was an impressive feat because the gap between the train and platform was less than five centimetres.

Warnings to ‘Mind The Gap’ are so well-known that the phrase is used metaphorically to refer to other things.

In my own story Hilda Bewildered, the signs warning ‘Mind The Gap’ refer equally to income inequalities.

This is not an original metaphor. Scientific American has used it, for instance, as have many others.

Do you know how this ‘Mind The Gap’ warning is announced in other languages around the world? Wikipedia has a list of translations.

Can you think of any other phrases like this which have become part of popular culture, commonly used to refer to other things? Wikipedia offers ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ as another example.

How many of these do you recognise?

Trains as Symbols of Expansion Into The American West

Ships are metonyms for England in stories about colonisation. Trains work similarly.

This poster is English, but trains were a necessary tool of American expansionism into the American West.

Trains As Symbols Of The City

Cover by Brugo, 1928 train city
Cover by Brugo, 1928 train city

Trains and the subway system are often central city images with multiple meanings in children’s literature. In Holman’s Slake’s Limbo, the New York subway becomes a metaphor for escape and freedom. We are told early in the novel “Aremis Slake had often escaped into the subway when things got rough above ground. He kept a subway token in his pocket for just that emergency”. Moreover, the subway takes on a greater magical force or power related to Slake’s personal choices and destiny, rather than merely a means of transit: “Slake with the instinct of other migratory creatures flew from the train at Seventy-Seventh Street and Lexington Avenue. This was an unusual move in itself; Slake usually exited only at transfer points”. Comparatively, in Robert Munsch’s picture book Jonathan Cleaned Up-Then He Heard a Sound, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, the mysteries of the city’s subway are perceived in a fantastical and absurd manner when young Jonathan’s living room becomes a subway station. It is an ordinary day at home when suddenly the living room wall opens up, a subway train pulls up and “all kinds of people came out of Jonathan’s wall, ran around his apartment and out the front door.” A mission down to City Hall leads Jonathan to find (in a moment reminiscent of Dorothy finding the “great and powerful Oz” behind the curtain) a little old man, who craves blackberry jam, behind a huge machine that apparently runs the city. He tells Jonathan that because the computer is broken, he does “everything for the whole city”. The story hilariously concludes with an illustration depicting the subway rerouted to stop at the Mayor’s office instead. Through Jonathan’s imaginative perspective, the behind-the-scenes controls of the city are in a realm as mysterious, fantastical or absurd as a mad tea party in Wonderland.

Naomi Hamer
Martin Lewis (1881-1962) 1949 Late Traveler
Martin Lewis (1881-1962) 1949 Late Traveler. The subway entrance can serve as a metaphorical cave entrance.

Case Study: Trains in Katherine Mansfield Short Stories

You’ll find the most dense symbolism in lyrical short stories, so let’s take a closer look at some stand-out examples.

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape“, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidentally meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

Another story, “Something Childish But Very Natural” is an excellent example of how the movement of a train is symbolically representative of fate.

The train of “Something Childish” is both a motif and a setting. I’ve written before about the symbolism of trains. Alice Munro is another short story writer who likes to make heavy symbolic use of them. Trains are interesting as an example of heterotopia — an ‘other’ space, separate from the regular world. To enter into a heterotopia is akin to going through a fantasy portal (even when the story is not speculative in nature).

Trains are the perfect fatalistic symbol; there’s only one path for a train — its pre-laid tracks. A fatalistic view of the world means you’re all about destiny, and subscription to the idea that we are powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

The trains of “Something Childish But Very Natural are also useful for symbolising the iterative nature of our daily lives — trains basically do the same things every single day, turning up at the same places at the same times. This gives a sort of Groundhog Day vibe to a story, before an author switches readers to the singulative (but on this particular day…)

Trains and tunnels go together.

MEMORIES OF MURDER BONG JOON-HO (2003). See also: The Symbolism of Tunnels.

Something Childish But Very Natural” is also an excellent example of how tunnels are used symbolically. Two young lovers ride a train, falling more and more in love as their journey progresses. But their dreams of love are punctuated by tunnels, foreshadowing the darkness of their emotions at story’s end.

Also in “Something Childish But Very Natural”, Mansfield matches Henry’s excited, elevated heart rate to the sounds of the train moving over the tracks. She describes how the train smells — wet india-rubber and soot. We really do feel transported to the era of steam engines.

Case Study: Trains In Alice Munro Short Stories

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, one of my favourites being “Chance”.

Free Radicals” is another interesting example.

What about the train thread in this story? First, the sexe en plein air near the tracks, between Nita and Rich. Later, the train reappears and now it is a symbol of fate.

“You wait till I say. I walked the railway track. Never seen a train. I walked all the way to here and never seen a train.”
“There’s hardly ever a train.”

The train track itself led the murderer to Nita’s house. There was nothing she could do to stop him. This fate was set in place the moment she started the affair with Rich. (And even that was probably fate.)

Case Study: Trains in a Robin Black Short Story

The following is the opening paragraph from”A Country Where You Once Lived” by Robin Black. It demonstrates perfectly the way in which trains signify the passage of time. Notice, too, how Black is saying something about ‘train window scenery’ as well:

It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London tot he village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband—a man Jeremy has never met—have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much father than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken ff all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two. […] It’s a fantasy landscape, he thinks. The kind that encourages belief in the myth of uncomplicated lives.

Robin Black
Virginia Lee Burton's futurism-inspired illustration for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Virginia Lee Burton’s futurism-inspired illustration for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 - 1927) inside a train
Frederick Cayley Robinson (British, 1862 – 1927) inside a train
Jugend magazine, 1927 train
Jugend magazine, 1927

Trains as Portal To Luxury

Alphonse Mucha Pyrenees train poster 1895 Art Nouveau
Alphonse Mucha Pyrenees train poster 1895 Art Nouveau
There’s no subtly to this. “If you’re rich, you can afford to buy more space and a more luxurious travelling experience, away from the plebs.”

Symbols of Perseverance

We tend to personify vehicles, so the sight of a heavy train making its way up a hill can be a gratifying sight.

Richard Scarry's Best Story Book Ever, Richard Scarry, 1970 Hamlyn, Third Impression 1972 train uphill
Richard Scarry’s Best Story Book Ever, Richard Scarry, 1970 Hamlyn, Third Impression 1972

The standout picture book example of a train trying its best is The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper cover
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper, with the repeated phrase of “I think I can! I think I can!”
Tootle Little Golden Book
Tootle Little Golden Book

A Train Bisects A Town

Train carriages themselves divide passengers by socioeconomic status.

Also, the English language idiom ‘wrong side of the tracks‘ describes the part of town that is not inhabited by the wealthy; an area where the working class, poor or extremely poor live. 

Lewitt-Him, 1942
Lewitt-Him, 1942
Hungarian-American designer illustrator Ilonka Karasz (1896 - 1981)
Hungarian-American designer illustrator Ilonka Karasz (1896 – 1981)

Even when the socioeconomic division is not implied, a railway line does function as a noisy, dangerous (but necessary) presence which runs through town, bringing inhabitants to a standstill whenever it rumbles through.

Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children's Land), c1920s and 30s train miniature
Illustration by Kawakami Shiro ( 川上四郎 絵) forKodomo no kuni (Children’s Land), c1920s and 30s. Here we have a miniature version.

The Train Unites and Divides Families and Lovers

Poster Art 1934 Sydexpressen (Danish Film)

Trains As Setting For A Crime Story

Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie is a standout example. Trains make good settings for murder mysteries for a number of reasons. The game Cluedo works with the same advantage: a limited set of suspects. This is called a locked-room mystery.

The “lockedroom” or “impossible crime” mystery is a subgenre of detective fiction in which a crime (almost always murder) is committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.

Locked Room Mystery, Wikipedia

With a train we also have a ticking clock device, because the train will eventually reach its destination and the murderer will then have the opportunity to walk away free.

In The Highland Falcon Thief: Adventures on Trains #1, a middle-grade series starter from MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, a young boy is swept up in an investigation to uncover the perpetrator of a jewel theft.

When eleven-year-old Harrison Hal Beck is forced to accompany his travel-writer uncle on the last journey of a royal train, he expects a boring trip spent away from video games and children his age.

But then Hal spots a girl who should not be on board, and he quickly makes friends with the stowaway, Lenny. Things get even more interesting when the royal prince and princess board for the last leg of the journey–because the princess’s diamond necklace is soon stolen and replaced with a fake! Suspicion falls on the one person who isn’t supposed to be there: Lenny.

It’s up to Hal, his keen observation, and his skill as a budding sketch artist to uncover the real jewel thief, clear his friend’s name, and return the diamond necklace before The Highland Falcon makes its last stop.

In this second book of the middle-grade Adventures on Trains series, amateur sleuth Hal Beck travels to the U.S. with his uncle to ride a famous train—the California Comet—and stumbles on a new mystery to solve, in M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman’s Kidnap on the California Comet…

After his adventure on the Highland Falcon, amateur sleuth Hal Beck is excited to embark on another journey with his journalist uncle. This time, they’re set to ride the historic California Comet from Chicago to San Francisco.

Hal mostly keeps to himself on the trip, feeling homesick and out of place in America. But he soon finds himself drawn into another mystery when the young daughter of a billionaire tech entrepreneur goes missing!

Along with new friends—spunky 13-year-old Mason and his younger sister, Hadley—Hal races against the clock to find the missing girl before the California Comet reaches its final destination.

Join Hal and Uncle Nat as they plunge straight into an exciting mystery – this time while on Safari!

All-aboard for the third amazing journey in the bestselling Adventures on Trains series from M. G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated throughout by Elisa Paganelli.

Uncle Nat is taking Hal on the journey of a lifetime – on a Safari Train from Pretoria to Victoria Falls. Drawing Africa’s amazing wild animals from on board a spectacular steam train described as a luxury hotel on wheels, should be enough excitement for anyone. But something suspicious is happening on board the Safari Star and when a passenger is found mysteriously killed inside a locked compartment, it’s up to Hal, along with his new friend Winston and his pet Mongoose, Chipo, to solve the murder mystery.


A railway is like an iceberg, you know: very little of its working is visible to the casual onlooker.

Robert Aickman, from “The Trains”, a horror short story

The illustrations below are less-seen perspectives of railway tracks, defamiliarising the train for us, offering a worm’s eye view perspective.

1939 November, cover by Frederick Chance train
1939 November, cover by Frederick Chance
1939 May, cover by John O'Hara Cosgrave
1939 May, cover by John O’Hara Cosgrave
Adolphe Mouron Cassandre 1901-1968 Nord Express train
Adolphe Mouron Cassandre 1901-1968 Nord Express train

The Ticking Clock is a tool often used by storytellers to add narrative drive. Anytime characters venture near railway tracks our heartrate increases as we know (or suspect) a train will be coming along soon.

Frederick Dorr Steele for American version of The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1908)
Frederick Dorr Steele for American version of The Adventure Of The Bruce-Partington Plans by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1908)
The Railway Children E Nesbit Faber Classics
The Railway Children E Nesbit Faber Classics

Trains And The Miniature

Humans love to mess around with size and scale.

We also love to create miniature versions of the things important to us. Model trains have long been associated with boyhood.

Andrew Scott Eidson model trains
Andrew Scott Eidson model trains


by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940 train
by Perry Barlow (1892-1977) 1940
  • When characters meet someone on a train they could so easily not have met them. This makes any encounter seem serendipitous.
  • This connects to a fatalistic view of the world (and perhaps of love), and the idea that ‘two souls were meant to meet’. The straight line of the tracks is a symbol of fate.
  • Tunnels (which are literally dark) can foreshadow emotional darkness to come.
  • Trains represent how humans experience time even though this is not how time actually works.
  • When we think of time in terms of straight, inevitable lines, we are drawn into a fatalistic view of the universe.
  • Trains are a part of the real world but work differently from the real world. We talk to people we might not otherwise have the chance to talk to. This is what makes them a heterotopia.
  • Trains can stand in for society, conveniently pushing rich and poor together, highlighting the divide.

Header painting: George William Joy – The Baywater Omnibus 1895


Lemon girl young adult novella


Planes Trains and Automobiles

Planes Trains Automobiles Movie Poster

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a thanksgiving comedy from 1987. The film has been given an R rating — not, as I expected, because of the pillow scene, but because of the cussy airport scene.

Planes Trains Automobiles Steve Martin angry

[Hughes] is not often cited for greatness, although some of his titles, like “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone,” have fervent admirers. What can be said for him is that he usually produces a real story about people he has clear ideas about; his many teenage comedies, for example, are miles more inventive than [more] recent sex-and-prom sagas.

Roger Ebert
Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.
Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a very much a movie of the 80s, and the reuniting scene at the end with the tearful wife is a bit eye-rolly to me, but the comedy is still relevant today: If anything, more of us are travelling more often and can relate well to travel delays next to annoying co-passengers.

Good stories don’t need to be complex. E.T. is another example of a film which has a simple story line but which was very popular in the 1980s.

The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart.

Roger Ebert

Planes, Trains and Automobiles probably works because the holiday itself is not the main action. Instead, we see a man who learns the ‘true meaning of Thanksgiving’. The holiday itself is simply the ticking-clock.

Ticking clocks are often used in other genres such as thrillers and action movies, but the device is also used (less commonly) in comedy journey stories.


Public transport is the ideal setting for a narrative because when you’ve got a main character and a main opponent, you have to find a way, as writer, to force them together into the same space. Howard Suber, in The Power of Film, wrote that almost every popular film could be justifiably called Trapped. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles we have a well-off white guy, who is basically living The American Dream, except he is trapped first in his workplace as his boss hems and haws in a board meeting, then we see him trapped in a variety of locations as his transportation continues to let him down.


Sentence Behind The Story: A man learns the true meaning of Thanksgiving when he is forced into the company of a man much less fortunate than he is on Thanksgiving Day one year.

Theme Thread: When you are blessed with good fortune and family you must show charity for those who don’t have what you have.

Setting: A large distance across America, juxtaposed with cramped and unpleasant transportation.

Symbol Thread: The lucky versus the unlucky


Story Level Symbolism

Christians will recognise that this is a Christian story (insofar as Christians sometimes like to think that being charitable is a specifically Christian thing):

One is reminded of the reluctant Simon helping Jesus carry his cross.

The Imaginative Conservative
Simon of Cyrene
Simon of Cyrene, Passion Of The Christ

See also The Stations Of The Cross, which is a series of pictures often seen decorating Catholic churches. There a few different versions of these steps, and only some are described in scripture. The pictures depict the events on the day of the crucifixion, and as you may notice, there are a few commonalities between this and the 22-Steps of your typical movie:

  • Jesus carries his cross
  • Jesus falls the first time (FIRST REVELATION AND DECISION)
  • Jesus meets his mother (PLAN)
  • Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross (HERO MEETS AN ALLY)
  • Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (ALLY)
  • Jesus falls the second time (SECOND REVELATION AND DECISION)
  • Jesus falls the third time (THIRD REVELATION AND DECISION)
  • Jesus is stripped of his garments (ATTACK BY OPPONENT)
  • Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross (GATE, GAUNTLET)
  • Jesus dies on the cross (VISIT TO DEATH)
  • Jesus is taken down from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
  • Jesus is laid in the tomb. (NEW SITUATION)

Object Symbolism

“Refer and repeat.” The trunk is the main symbol in this film and we see it again and again, as explained over at ScreenPrism:

The trunk is an iconic prop piece from the film, and during the picture serves as the catalyst for a number of jokes. Before the characters of Neal (Steve Martin) and Del even meet, Neal trips over the trunk on the sidewalk while hailing a cab. It’s the first of many trunk-related blunders to come. In the spirit of a Thanksgiving film that doesn’t ignore its holiday associations, the trunk serves as a shared burden and a symbol of budding kindness between the men.

The trunk also becomes a point of mystery as the film moves forward. What exactly is in this thing? We see Del remove a hypoallergenic pillow and a photo of his wife, but what demands the rest of the space within such a large object is never seen. It serves as a nice symbol of a salesman’s life on the road — in one scene Del says he “hasn’t been home in years.” He claims he’s speaking metaphorically, and the inference is that most of his worldly possessions are within the box he transports across the map.


“Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield is a completely different kind of story — different era, different place, different form. But Neal and Kezia share in common the feeling of being trapped, which in both stories is symbolised by a container. For Neal it is Del’s annoying trunk; for Kezia it is a wide array of containers — the pill box, the match box and so on.


In order for stock characters to be relatable, writers have to ‘transcend stock’.

ImaginativeConserative explain how John Hughes managed to transcend the stock characters of a cynical New York City ad-man and a boorish traveling salesman:

Key to the success of the film is this refusal of writer-director Hughes to make cardboard characters out of Griffith and Page. The shower-curtain-ring salesman, despite his boorishness, is aware that he is a “blabbermouth” who can annoy others. [Neal] Page is also not one-dimensional. He is an everyman in his understandable desire to avoid the loquacious  and overbearing [Del] Griffith, yet his face shows the regret he feels when he realizes he has deeply wounded Griffith in the hotel room scene described above.

This is essentially an ‘odd couple’ film, because Neal and Del could hardly be more different.

Neal and Del


As Roger Ebert said, this film is ‘soundly constructed’.

Although Neal is clearly the hero, changing the most throughout the story (from entitled cynic to grateful, more positive guy), it is John Candy’s character, Del, who has the interesting ‘ghost‘ (a troublesome part of one’s backstory). Sure enough, the nature of this ghost is fed to the audience gradually via hints, and as is usual for ghosts, the audience finds out what that ghost is about 3/4 of the way through the story. The audience realises there’s something fishy about Del’s so-called perfect life before Neal does. Neal will discover the truth at the ‘anagnorisis’ stage.

Neal’s anagnorisis is shown via Del. Del is the sort of guy who would talk to himself out loud (actually to his dead wife, Marie), so we are shown Del’s transformation as it happens. (Simultaneously with Neal’s, inside the motel he will later share with Del.) John Hughes was not afraid of being ham-fisted. (Comedy seems to be one genre in which we forgive tricks like melodramatic monologues and the over-the-top insights into Neal’s thoughts — via unabashed cuts and flashbacks.

Anagnorisis: By the end of the story Neal Page will be a lot more tolerant.

What he believes about himself at the start: At the start he feels entitled. He has the perfect life in the suburbs with a wife and family. He can afford to travel home first class. Del calls him a ‘cold-hearted cynic’ in the hotel room, putting into words what the audience has already noticed about Neal.

Need: Neal needs to become warmer and less cynical. By the end of the film he will have become more like Del, but not all of his transformation is good. Del is also a little sneaky (using Neal’s credit card, for instance), and Neal, too, chooses to forget he can’t pay for any of the little drinks he took from the bar fridge.

What is your problem you insensitive asshole

Neal desire is to make it home by 9pm for Thanksgiving. The stakes are upped when we see a cut to his daughter’s Thanksgiving pageant in which she says thank you for her dad coming home.

Ghost (backstory)

Del Griffith has the significant ghost – his wife is dead and he is homeless. (I wonder how he ended up homeless. With healthcare the way it is in America, perhaps he re-mortgaged the house to pay for his wife’s medical treatment?)

We are offered hints all the way through, which probably won’t be fully assimilated upon initial viewing. For instance, that huge trunk Del has been dragging around New York.


At first we think he’s just one of those annoying passengers who can’t pack sensibly, or perhaps the trunk is full of curtain rings. He carries his own pillow due to ‘allergies’, but in fact he carries all of his worldly goods with him, and this would include a pillow. His pillow is the extent of his home. Washing his socks in the sink shows that he has come up with a variety of hacks for living on the road; Neal has the luxury of taking his home to be washed by his wife (no doubt).

What you see is what you get
Del, too, must have a anagnorisis. Does he really believe at this point that ‘what you see is what you get’? This is an ironic clue for the audience to begin piecing things together.

Setting of Planes, Trains and Automobiles

America, across large distances, from NY to Wichita to Chicago. When Neal’s flight gets rerouted to Wichita this is funny because it’s pretty much as far away as you can get from Chicago while not actually leaving the country.


But within that vast space there are a number of very small spaces which feel claustrophobic – a plane, a train, and a succession of automobiles. This throws the everyman character and his opponent together.

Neal’s unpleasant setting Neal provides contrast against the peacefulness of his warm, cosy home where his wife is waiting for him with his children. We see how out-of-place Neal is in contrast with Del, who has friends all over the place and can better gauge the appropriate song to sing on the bus.

We are shown nothing about Del. We need to be shown how high the stakes are for Neal, though.  Here is the real house filmed in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. It’s a ‘classic colonial’ of the sort I used to think could be found everywhere in America when I was a kid in New Zealand, seeing America only via TV. In movie land, this is the house that denotes success; a family house. You need a good job to live in a beautiful house like this one.


Neal waits for a cab in NYC, as just one of many people just like him, we are shown.

Planes-Trains-and-Automobiles_trying to catch a cab

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Psychological Need: He has no patience for things that don’t go to plan.

Moral Need: He is a little rude to the flight attendant when he is bumped down to cattle class, but the audience can still empathise with him because he really is having a shitty time.

Inciting Incident

The flight to Chicago gets rerouted to Wichita, where Neal and Del are stuck in bad weather. There are no available rooms by the time Neal has finished calling his wife. So Del and Neal end up in the same bed in the same motel room.


Del wants only to please. Neal wants only to be left alone.

Roger Ebert

Neal only wants to get home in time for Thanksgiving. Since Thanksgiving with family is an important event for Americans (and anyone outside America can relate to our own special family events), the holiday provides a great ‘ticking-clock’ to the story. The stakes are high and time is running out. Thanksgiving is, of course, about giving thanks, which is the very thing Neal is unable to do. He will actually learn, this year, to be grateful for what he has. So this film supports the philosophy of this holiday rather than challenging it (as some films challenge the meaning of Christmas, for instance).


Neal is alone on this trip – Del is an opponent psychologically, though in practical terms he tries to be an ally, offering to share his room, for instance, and finally saving Del by hitching them a ride on a truck, which Neal couldn’t have managed on his own due to being generally unpleasant to people when he’s pissed off. Del is not the company Neal wants, but he’s the company Neal needs, because from Del he’s going to learn to be a nicer person.


Apart from Del, the people Neal meets along the road are unhelpful at best and antagonistic at worst, because Neal is the kind of guy who rubs service workers up the wrong way.

Del is a twist on the ‘fake-ally opponent’ in that he is a stumbling block for Neal, but he does have genuinely good intentions. I would call him an ‘ally-opponent’.

Changed desire and motive

Neal’s basic desire (to get home for Thanksgiving) stays the same throughout the story. (A ‘single desire line’, as per the story rules — new desire = new story.) His desire morphs only in that he changes his mode of transportation every time his vehicle breaks down. Can’t take the plane? Take the train. Can’t take the train? Okay, take the bus. Can’t take the bus? Okay, rent a car. Rental car’s not there? Go back to the rental company desk and order a replacement. You threw your papers away in a rage and abuse the woman behind the desk? No problem, hire a taxi. Taxi driver punches you in the balls?

Neal on the ground

Hitch a ride with the annoying Del. Del’s car burns to a crisp and a police officer orders you to get it off the road? Hitch back to Chicago in the back of a frozen goods truck.

First revelation and decision

There are a number of minor revelations along the way, or red-herrings. For example, Neal’s $700 is stolen at the dodgy hotel by an intruder. Neal thinks it’s Del. (This has been foreshadowed by Del going into his stuff.) But they work out they’ve both been robbed, which restores Neal’s faith a little. Neal can’t fly home because the flights are booked out. So they decide to take the train. But the train breaks down.

Notice the placement of the ornamental fighting animal in the background. (Behind Neal rather than behind Del.) This scene foreshadows the later one, in which Del really is forced to use Neal’s credit card.

planes trains automobiles bear


Neal plans to take a cab to Jefferson City.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack 

Del’s plan is to stay with Neal because he likes him (and also probably because he has no money whatsoever) so he hooks up with Neal again and again. Being friendly is what works for Del most of the time, and he can’t quite understand at first why Neal wouldn’t like him also.


At no point in the story does Neal decide just to give up and spend Thanksgiving wherever he is stuck. At one point he even says, “There’s no way I’m spending Thanksgiving in Wichita”. Everything that happens to him makes him more determined than ever to get home.

Attack by ally

Neal is the opponent and ally rolled into one. They have a series of arguments over the course of the film, all of which lead to Neal’s character change. “Well, there are things I don’t like about you, too,” Del says, after Neal complains about his foot odour in the car. He doesn’t want to say anything really personal, though, because he’s not that kind of guy, so he says, “You’re always playing with your balls.” The thing Neal is learning here is how not to fight dirty. We’ve already seen him in action, in which he attacks Del in the most personal way.

here's a good idea have a point

Audience revelation

Cafe lunch scene: The audience can see around this point that Del is homeless. He lets it slip over the lunch that he insists on paying for. Neal queries him on it and he takes it back, saying it’s a ‘figure of speech’ that he hasn’t been home in years. Neal brushes it off but the audience remembers it.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

When Neal is rude to the rental car woman she decides not to help him out with another car. A taxi driver outside won’t help him either. He punches Neal in the balls when he’s down on the ground. A cop passes by which saves him from worse.

But he comes even closer to death when Del gets his jacket stuck on the car seat knob while he’s driving. He doesn’t want to wake Neal up because they’ve just had an argument, so he tries to get himself untangled to disastrous consequences. He drives back onto the highway after spinning off the road, but is going in the wrong direction.

After narrowly avoiding two trucks the car catches fire. They’re now stranded in the middle of the highway. Neal’s wallet is in the glove box. His credit cards are burnt to a crisp.


It emerges that Del has used Neal’s credit card to pay for the wrecked rental car. They have a huge argument about Del using it. Neal is sure that Del has stolen it. The audience knows that the switch up was an honest mistake. There is a literal fight: Neal punches Del in the guts.

First Moral decision

The two of them make their way to a motel where Neal gets to feel what it’s like to be penniless and homeless, because all he has are credit cards that have been burnt to a crisp. He pays with $17 and a watch that is worth a helluva lot more. Del, meanwhile, only has $2 and a (cheap) Casio watch. Neal is Neal’s room is a twin, so after realising how it feels to be poor he lets Del share the room. This is the beginning of his charity towards the less fortunate.

I have $2 and a casio

Neal and Del’s Anagnorisis

While he’s deciding to be charitable, in the burnt out car with no roof and the snow fluttering down, Del has his own revelation: Marie, you’re right. I meet someone I really like and I go overboard. I smother the guy. When am I gonna wake up? (Talking to himself, because he’s the sort of character who would talk to himself.) Each of them has a simultaneous revelation, as it turns out.

Del drives the burnt out car for a while, until they’re pulled over by a cop.

After another ride in the back of a frozen goods truck, also set up by the personable Del, who seems to be able to talk his way into anything (except when it comes to Neal), they end up in Chicago. Neal has now learned some gratitude.

Planes Trains Automobiles forced together

“You got me home. A little wiser, too.”

The radio still works clear as a bell
Neal learns all sorts of things from Del, including how to make lemonade out of lemons. Though I guess it’s easier to be okay with the state of the rental car when it’s not your own credit card’s problem!

Apparent defeat

By the time they two are in the back of the truck and it’s already the day of Thanksgiving, we all might wonder what else is going to go wrong. Neal has been basically wordless and morose, letting Del lead him home, obviously resigned to fate.

Second Moral Decision

The last scenes of the movie carry the emotional payoff we have been half-awaiting all along. For Neal, they reflect a kind of moral rebirth such as Scrooge experiences in another great holiday tale: He has learned his lesson, and will no longer judge people by their appearances, or by his own selfish standards. There is true poignancy in the scene where Neal finds Del waiting alone on the L platform.

Roger Ebert

This more minor moral decision from earlier precedes this main one: Del’s wife is dead and he is homeless. Neal realises this when he’s on the train back in Chicago almost home and has time to reflect. We are shown what he is thinking – his children, pie coming out of the oven, a turkey, then he thinks of all the times with Del we’ve been shown Del has no wife. He rushes back to the station where he finds Del alone. Del admits that Marie’s been dead for eight years.

New situation

Del has learnt not to be so clingy with people he’s just met, and Neal has learnt to call Del ‘one unique individual’. (“Is that Latin for asshole?”) He’s learnt to take life as it comes.

Together Neal and Del carry the huge trunk down the road leading to Neal’s massive house. This is a visual symbol of their equality as human beings and as friends.


“Boy, you are one lucky guy, Neal. I won’t stay long, maybe I’ll just come in and say hi and then I’ll be on my way, all right?”


We know that even if Del leaves straight after Thanksgiving and the two men never see each other again, Neal’s relationship with his wife has now changed for the better (I hate to think how they argued before), and he will be forever a more grateful man who can roll with life’s transportation punches.


Notice how Neal (Steve Martin) initially dislikes Del (John Candy), and considers him an obstacle to be overcome, or at least a pain in the ass. Then, as they are forced to work together to achieve their common goal, Neal eventually grows to like Del, benefit from their friendship, and in the end, generously give him something in return.

This same dynamic occurs in The Heat, Midnight Run, Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Ban(plus numerous other Shane Black screenplays), Toy Story, The Guard, Rush Hour, Hot Fuzz, Central Intelligence and an abundance of other comedies and action films.

Michael Hauge