Like with my previous top ten focussing on films set on boats, trains can be an equally effective narrative tool at providing a restrained and claustrophobic setting for the plot. Trains can also be an effective character within the narrative, as the impenetrable and potentially destructive power of a train hurtling at high speed can be an effective narrative device that drives the plot.
For this list I have opted for films that either have at least a vast majority of the narrative taking place within the confines of a train or have a train that is the main focus of the narrative, so the likes of Strangers on a Train and Brief Encounter miss out as for me the train is not prominent enough, while The Girl on the Train and The Commuter miss out because simply because it is rubbish. Naturally, I do not claim this to be any kind of definitive list of the very best films in the history of cinema but is just a list based on the films I have seen.
Ps: Sorry Steven, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory didn’t quite make the cut, but as a consolation I have a used a still from the film as this post’s main image!
10. Last Passenger (2013)
This low budget British thriller about a group of passengers who find themselves on a train taken over by a mysterious terrorist who plans to crash the train at high speed may not be perfect and contain a few factual errors (Hastings’ station is not a terminus!) but is still enjoyable fun with some moments of genuine tension. One of the main interesting elements of this film is that we never see or know anything about the individual who takes control of the train with the sole intention of crashing it into the barriers at high speed, leaving the narrative to solely focus on the few passengers left on the train and how they figure out how they try to stop it.
9. Snowpiercer (2013)
Of all the films on this list, Joon-ho Bong’s dystopian thriller is certainly the one that fits the literal criteria the most, as the entire narrative does take place within the film’s titular train. Set in a future where a failed attempt at stopping global warming has led to the earth being frozen beyond human survival, the planet’s only survivors live on a giant train that does an annual continuous loop. Naturally, this is the future, so therefore there is a dystopia, and in this case there is a brutal class system, and so the peasants at the bottom end of the train lead a revolt (lead by Chris Evans) that will take them on an entire journey to the very front. Snowpiercer is certainly great fun, with a set design that contains some striking visuals that often venture into the absurd and darkly comic. However, it does have some glaring plot holes, while the apparent ‘points’ it makes are certainly nothing that hasn’t been shown many times before.
8. Transsiberian (2008)
Brad Anderson’s thriller set on the trans-Siberian Railway and the train that takes the journey through the harsh and isolated landscape on a journey from China to Russia is a stranger-danger thriller that is rather basic in concept, but very effective in execution. Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer play the American couple who befriend a mysterious young couple played by Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara, but soon find themselves in the middle of a drug smuggling conspiracy involving Ben Kingsley’s scenery chewing Russian cop. The entire narrative is admittedly rather formulaic, but Anderson uses both the Siberian scenery and the confined claustrophobia of the train very effectively to create a highly enjoyable and often genuinely thrilling film.
7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
For me one of the more underrated of Wes Anderson’s films, as it may not be as laugh-out-loud funny or as slick as some of his other films, but this story of three estranged brothers who go on a train trip across India in search of their mother is still a quirky delight. Wes Anderson is of course famed for his attention to detail, and he uses the setting of both India and the actual train itself very effectively, with the train itself is very much a character in its own right that is used to examine some of the narrative’s key themes.
6. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier films from his British period before he went off to Hollywood to make some of the greatest films of all time; The Lady Vanishes tells the story of a young woman who befriends an elderly lady on a train, but after a flowerpot lands on her head and she passes out, she awakens to find the elderly lady has vanished and none of the passengers recall ever seeing her. Though it does inevitable feel dated, The Lady Vanishes is still a very engrossing thriller, with Hitchcock using the claustrophobic train setting to maximum effect. It surely must also feature one of the first cinematic bromances featuring Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as a pair of incredibly English gentleman who just want to get home in time so to not miss the cricket!
5. Runaway Train (1985)
Described as a ‘psychological action thriller’, Andrei Konchalovsky’s story about two convicts (Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) who escape a high security prison and board a train, which then (after the driver dies of a heart attack and the brakes fail) becomes the title of the film, is certainly not your average 80s action blockbuster. With the prison warden on their tail being as violent and vengeful as the hardened criminals he is responsible for, there are certainly attempts at philosophising about human nature and who the real bad guys are. Despite some serious overacting from the two leads, they do emerge as likeable and worth routing, and overall Runaway Train it is a very watchable film with an ending that is certainly quite unique.
4. The General (1926)
Despite being panned on initial release, The General is regarded by many as Buster Keaton’s masterpiece; he plays a train engineer during the American civil war who is refused entry into the army, but after his beloved train is stolen by enemy soldiers, a railway pursuit ensues. The General features Keaton’s trademark deadpan humour and self-performed stunts, and still holds up very well today due to the realism of it. The train-based pursuit itself is still a thrilling and often very funny watch, and a lot of this is down to the fact that Keaton did a lot of the stunts himself.
3. Source Code (2011)
Duncan Jones followed up his superb low budget sci-fi film Moon with this higher budgeted and even higher concept thriller, in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s soldier finds himself inside the body of another individual with just 8 minutes to stop a bomb from exploding on a train bound for Chicago, and he repeats the exercise until he figures out the identity of the bomber and stops the bomb from detonating. It was easy to see why Jones was regarded as such hot property after this film came out, as it is a very enjoyable thriller with enough attention to detail in utilising its setting and human element to be very satisfying without ever feeling too repetitive.
2. Unstoppable (2010)
If you ever need to cast an actor as a character that knows a local railway network inside out (including exactly how many goods trucks will fit in various sidings) then surely Denzel Washington has to be your man? Tony Scott had already cast Denzel in a similar role in his 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 (which just misses the cut for this top 10), and this actioner is pure popcorn pleasure as rail workers Denzel and Chris Pine try desperately to stop a runaway goods train carrying toxic chemicals from derailing on a sharp curve that happens to be in a town and near a fuel depot. There are also clichés aplenty involving trains full of school children to make the plot as dramatic as possible, and the two leads are on charismatic form for what is a genuinely thrilling and enjoyable visual trip.
1.Train to Busan (2016)
Though there are undoubtedly way too many zombie films these days, there is the occasional film of this rather oversubscribed genre that still manages to feel fresh and be genuinely thrilling. This South Korean film is certainly the latter and focusses on a father and his daughter on a train journey from Seoul to Busan during the middle of the outbreak of a zombie virus and their struggle for survival as the virus spreads through the train’s passengers. Director Sang-ho Yeon uses the film’s setting to create an effective sense of claustrophobia and create what is a genuinely thrill-ride of a film.