In Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (1997), Lynne Kirby argues that the train and cinema are akin to doubles: “As a machine of vision and an instrument for conquering space and time, the train is a mechanical double for the cinema and for the transport of the spectator into fiction, fantasy, and dream. Kirby adds: “Like film’s illusion of movement, the experience of the railroad is based on a fundamental paradox: simultaneous motion and stillness” (2). The viewer/passenger remains immobile in order to indulge in the experience of movement in the cinema/train. The train was always cinematic even before the railway journey came to be filmed—think of the rectangular windows on trains allowing travelers to become spectators of the passing scenery, transporting the distal to the proximal as one comes closer to one’s destination, where the ersatz film ends.
While the train may loom large in the cultural imaginary, the total ridership of Amtrak was just over 32 million in 2019, compared to 811 million on domestic flights. (In 2020 ridership on Amtrak was cut in half due to the Pandemic.) Yet 35 mainstream narrative films were set on trains between 2010 and 2019. Indeed, Slow TV emerges with its first hit in 2009 via a filmed train ride from Bergen to Oslo, entitled Bergensbanen-minutt for minutt, so trains are back—at least on popular media. The series Snowpiercer (based on the 2013 Bong Joon Ho film of the same name) is about to start filming a third season; it is set on a train that is over 10 miles long.
Although the American railway system needs updating, Americans just elected a President who loves Amtrak. Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, wants America to lead the world in fast trains. Even if our trains remain slow, no doubt yet another version of Murder on the Orient Express will be fast tracked soon. Meanwhile, the Slow TV train offers the viewer a perspective she is usually denied as passenger or filmgoer: Slow TV includes footage from a camera in the front of the train, the “phantom ride" perspective that was used in early cinema. The camera remains still as it films movement, reasserting the paradox that Kirby identified in the doubling of trains and cinema.
Intercity railways may be underutilized, but many cities have busy subways and commuter trains. In Chicago, 750,000 people used the Transit Authority’s trains on an average weekday in 2018. In the video above, we accompany a Brown Line “L” train as it carves a path between buildings. Though the video is 10 hours long, it consists of a 15-minute looped sequence of the downtown area, suggesting an endless urban journey that never leaves the Chicago Loop.
Kirby, Lynne. Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Duke University Press, 1997.
Thanks to Racquel Gates for providing me with a rider’s perspective on the significance of the Chicago “L”. Thanks also to Charlotte Gavin of the National Transportation Library.