Just Train Wrong

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
(Redirected from Did Not Choo the Research)
Something about this is just train wrong.

These are the examples that make Casey Jones cry.

Just like works that are Just Plane Wrong, many writers just don't do the research when it comes to railways, locomotives and rolling stock.

Easily, the number one mistake is showing a steam locomotive without a tender or bunker and tanks—which usually means that it doesn't have any fuel or water and therefore can't move. Other common departures from reality might involve a Runaway Train's safety systems failing without any justifiable reason, or the wrong kind of train or rolling stock for the script. But, hey, most viewers don't know or care what the proper train would look like.

Cases of anachronistic locomotives and rolling stock are more forgiveable, for most of the same reasons given in sister tropes involving ships, aircraft or armoured vehicles. Sometimes there are simply no serviceable examples still in existence, or the surviving examples are stabled at preserved railway lines far from their original area of operation and are too expensive to transport,leaving the production team with a choice between this trope or California Doubling. Even when you manage to make locomotive and rolling stock match the period and the location, they're often in a livery from an earlier or later period of their service lifespan, and the owners may well be reluctant to have them repainted for filming.

Compare Steam Never Dies.

Examples of Just Train Wrong include:


  • This highly amusing advert for British Rail's InterCity services inadvertently illustrated why film crews sometimes just have to put up with anachronistic liveries, as the special Police paintjob that was supposed to wash off easily after filming failed to perform as advertised, and the locomotive had to be sanded down and repainted. As any preservationist will tell you, this process is not cheap for a small not-for-profit organisation depending upon volunteer labour.

Comic Books

  • The second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a scene in which a Martian tripod destroys Barnes Bridge along with a train crossing it. However, while the train is spot-on for the period, it's a London and North Western Railway design. Barnes Bridge was on the London and South Western Railway, and used very different locomotives.


  • |Mission Impossible
    • The fight scene in the Channel Tunnel. In real-life, the Tunnel consists of two single-track tunnels (and a service tunnel for electric vehicles)
    • The line is also electrified with overhead catenary throughout, which would cause big problems for both a helicopter flying in the tunnel and anyone standing on top of the train.
    • The helicopter could not get close to the train in the tunnel without being hit by high-speed winds created by the train moving at high-speed.
    • A regular French TGV is used in place of the Eurostar variant, even being identified as such in the Coincidental Broadcast; in actual fact, different loading gauges and voltage supplies—and in the case of the line between Kent and London at the time, third-rail instead of overhead electrification—make it impossible to operate a TGV in the UK.[1]
  • The poster for the film Creep depicts a 1972 Mk1 stock Northern Line train—the stock was withdrawn four years before the film was released.
    • All but one - London Underground keeps a single example on the abandoned Aldwych line, where Creep (and most other works involving the Underground) are filmed. It might well be the same train.
  • Enigma features 1950s MK1 British Rail Stock (with Eastern Region numbering) in a scene that takes place near Bletchley in 1943. This is quite common due to the large number of BR Mk1s in preservation (and the large number built; they were a standard carriage used throughout the system, replacing many previous designs, and the last of them weren't taken out of service until 2005), compared to the accurate pre-war types which are in comparison quite rare. The Mk1s are also all steel construction, whereas earlier types were often wooden framed or wooden bodied, which didn't help their survival.
  • Runaway Train from 1985 has quite a few errors.[context?]
  • In The Legend of Zorro, the driver of the bad guy's train is hit by a piece of wood and falls against the throttle, shoving it forward and causing the train's speed and boiler pressure to dramatically increase. Pushing the throttle forward would actually close it, making the train slow down (and eventually stop) while a rise in speed would cause the boiler pressure to decrease.
  • Public Enemies: The producers decided to show a train arriving in Chicago. While Milwaukee Road #261 and its cars in their orange and maroon livery could be reasonably explained, the locomotive is anachronistic to the 1933 setting of the film. ALCO did not build that particular locomotive until 1944.
  • In The Swarm the driver falls against the brake, shoving it forward, causing the train to speed up and crash. Pushing the brake forward applies it, and applying the brakes is how you stop the train.
  • In Savage Messiah, a film set in Victorian England, the protagonist at one point narrowly avoids being hit by a 1940s American-built locomotive.
  • In Titanic, in the scene at Southampton, an American switcher is briefly seen on the dockside. Not quite the glaring error it appears to be, as the Southern Railway company did operate a few S100-class switchers bought used from the US Army Transportation Corps, but they weren't even designed until the middle of the Second World War. Someone in the set design team was trying to be too clever for their own good.
  • In the Edwardian-set Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there is a brief shot of a train from the Great Western Railway. Except it's not, it's actually a rather poorly disguised World War II-era 'Austerity tank'.
  • The Railway Children is mostly pretty good with this trope - as it's set on a fictional railway, most inaccuracies can be handwaved away. However, the engine that nearly hits Jenny Agutter wasn't built until the 1930s.
  • Heroically almost-averted in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. In one scene, set in France in 1910, Terry-Thomas lands on top of a train that train enthusiasts will recognize as being hauled by the Scottish 'Jones Goods.' However, while this is not strictly accurate, very similar locomotives were indeed working in France in 1910. In other words, it was as close as they could reasonably get in the late 1960s.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe creates a very impressive representation of World War II-era Paddington Station, with the correct engine and rolling stock... and then has the engine painted in 1950s livery.
  • Garfield's movie has a scene where Garfield infiltrates a dispatcher's room and switches trains willy nilly sending them all on collision courses with one another. This would be impossible as the system would not allow the controler to switch points in front of an approaching train.
  • Source Code:
    • Trains do not have guns on board, as quoted by Metra's own commuter newsletter On the Bi Level: "If conductors wanted to wield guns they would have applied for a different kind of blue uniform."
    • The so called "conductor's compartment" is actually an engineer cab for remotely controlling the locomotive when the train is moving in that direction, and is portrayed on the wrong end of the train car (the engineer must be able to see the track ahead). Even more so from the outside view of the cars since it shows the windshields for the cab on the right end of the car, but the side windows of the cab on the wrong end as well. Not to mention this was a Chicago bound train, so the compartment would not have been empty, there would have been an engineer on one side of the compartment, operating the train.
    • Not all cars on the train have headlights/taillights/red stripes.
    • Gallery cars of the type depicted do not have a bridge over the isle, they have stairs on either side of the isle to reach their respective sides of the mezzanine.
  • Unstoppable is a notable aversion. While the film is clearly a dramatization centered around a runaway train; the incident is inspired by Crazy Eights. The creators of the film also went to great lengths to accurately adhere to railway mechanics, physics and procedures. However, the producers do apply lots of Artistic License to the road name, cab number and loco model.
  • Super 8 featured a train which was, to all appearances, violating the existing class five freight speed limits... not to mention the fact that the most viable routing for the train (as shown in some of the viral material) was over Conrail tracks in 1979. Why is this a problem? Conrail inherited a broken down physical plant from the railroads which merged into it, meaning that there were slow orders all around. Potentially averted given who was doing the shipping... but given the number of derailments that occurred under the Penn Central in the years leading up to Conrail's formation, an incident of seriously questionable judgment. (Of course, it is worth giving credit to the viral team, who cobbled together a spot-on routing for the shipment (and one which would only involve three railroads, about as few as you could hope to run that train on back in 1979, as UP hadn't taken over about five other Class Is).
  • Breakfast On Pluto generally makes a lot of effort with its 1970s setting, until the scene at Paddington station when Kitten goes back to Ireland, which has loads of clearly visible modern trains. But the budget probably didn't stretch to anything more authentic.
  • Speed: the subway train they're on in the third act has no dead man's brake.
  • In Back to The Future 3, Doc Brown states that the logs he has created for Marty to throw into the stolen locomotive are made mostly out of anthracite coal. While anthracite does burn much more efficiently than wood, it can also be incredibly difficult to ignite, especially when it isn't broken into very small pieces. The engine in the film was also designed to burn wood, which allow too much or too little air draft to ignite the coal even if Marty did have the time to sit there and baby it.
    • Not to mention that the boiler would have run dry without the tender in that distance. No water, no steam. No water and the hotter firebox wont do any good. High heat + Empty boiler = KABOOM!
      • Doc does mention that the boiler will catastrophically explode if it reaches a certain pressure, and during the last minute of the scene, rivets and seams are visibly failing and spewing vapor or jets of superheated water. Also, the train explicitly does retain the tender in the script (Doc commands the engineer and fireman to "uncouple the cars from the tender").
      • In Real Life, the tenders were often physically attached to the engine and could not be removed without significant effort anyway.
  • The Polar Express: things like the vehicles bending around a mountain peak or a 100% decline, the length of the train keeps varying from five to about a dozen coaches etc etc.
  • The military train in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is quite clearly a Spanish steam engine (note the buffers as it pulls into the station) pulling European-style two-axle cars. By the 1860s, bogie cars were well-established in America.
  • In the 2012 blockbuster film The Avengers, at the beginning of the scene introducing Black Widow we see an establishing shot of a Norfolk Southern freight train passing by the ratty looking warehouse where the heroine is being interrogated conducting an interrogation. The only problem is that the scene is set in Russia, which is not only several thousand miles away from the nearest Norfolk Southern locomotive, but wouldn't even be the correct track gauge if such a locomotive happened to be imported.
    • The producers were aware of problem and digitally removed the NS logo and lettering, but the black on white NS paint scheme is nevertheless unmistakable as well as the North American railroad industrial design.
      • The scene was shot in Cleveland (a good stand in for post-collapse Russia) and filming a passing train was a spur of the moment decision.

Live Action TV

  • "Body 21" from Waking the Dead features a slam-door train.
  • A fun game to play while watching The Bill is spotting railway trains that have livery you would never see in East London, due to the South London filming location—South West Trains for example.
  • James May's Toy Stories plays with this trope during the model train episode. In the episode, he revived a decommissioned piece of railroad in Britain using model train tracks. He and Oz Clarke got into arguments about which model trains they should run based on historical accuracy.
  • On The Wild Wild West, the characters are able to move between cars while the train is in motion even though there are only couplings and not walkways of any sort between the cars.

Western Animation

  • Thomas the Tank Engine has some examples. Whilst the author of the books, Wilbert Awdry, was a railway buff who made a point of getting the details right in his books, there are many examples of unrealistic railway operation in the TV series, particularly in later seasons.
    • Crane tank engines (such as Harvey) are not capable of locomotive salvage (they are used mainly for lifting and loading cargo).
    • A Japanese engine such as Hiro, or an American locomotive like Hank, would not be able to run on traditional British rails. US engines have a much larger loading gauge. than on British lines, and so would collide with the first bridge or platform it encountered. Whilst Japanese steam engines are a similar size to those in the UK, they were built for a narrower track gauge, and changing the gauge would make it too wide (as the cylinders, the widest point, would have to move out).
    • Engines cannot switch tracks of their own volition, as the pointwork is controlled from levers, either as an open frame or in a building, beside the line and not from aboard the engine.
    • It would be impractical, if not impossible, to build a railway line over a dam.
    • It's dangerous to push trains that aren't designed to operate that way. It's extremely dangerous to push trains in a snowstorsm. It's even more dangerous to push trains in a snowstorm without a brakevan.
    • A "grabber" style crane would not be used in the scrapping of a railway locomotive.
    • Steam locomotives do not have "engines", they are the engine.
    • The entire climax of The Great Discovery:
      • Standard gauge locomotives are not allowed to work in mineshafts.
      • It's physically impossible to suspend railway tracks in such a way to support a steam locomotive.
      • There's no water current strong enough to propel a locomotive down a river.
      • The infamous Ramp Jump scene is impossible in itself.
      • Thomas shouldn't have had any steam left at all, it should have gradually leaked out.
      • You can't just move coal from one engine to another and expect it to start a fire—especially one whose firebox was previously flooded.
      • It's impossible to operate a steam engine without a water injector.
    • The general weirdness of the Misty Island railway: The zipline and the Shake Shake Bridge.
      • Diesel wouldn't have been able to outrun Thomas, as Class 08 shunters have a max speed of 15 or 20 mph.
      • Diesel would never have been able to keep his balance on the edge of the bridge. His spinning wheels would have caused the rails to bend, making him fall.
      • It's unsafe for steam engines to travel underground over long distances. The smoke and steam would make the air toxic and suffocate the engine's crew.
    • A steam locomotive running out of water wouldn't stop like a car out of petrol: it's boiler would explode.
      • If it was short of water in the boiler the fire would be put out to prevent such a thing happening (and are designed to let water from the boiler into the fire if the level gets too low); such a scenario occurred in an early book, and whilst unpleasant the engine could continue with a reduced fire.
  • Looney Tunes short. Bugs and Yosemite Sam are charging each other, playing 'Chicken' with locomotives. Sam chickens out first, before Bugs pulls a lever lifting his train up on extenders. Except.. aren't all the wheels still on the same rails? Rule of Funny.
  • Chuggington has taken a lot of artistic licence with regard to railway operations:
    • The steam locomotive characters lack tenders (one had one, but it wasn't used and rusted away), and apparently take on water directly into the boiler.
    • Locomotives are much more dynamic that any real locomotive, and can jump off the rails and bounce back down perfectly.
  • The film adaptation of The Little Engine that Could featured several steam locomotives that for some reason do not have tenders.
  • The Illusionist generally does a brilliant job of capturing early-1960s Britain... apart from some very French-looking railway carriages in the background at Kings Cross station.
  • The engine pulling the train in the revised intro for My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic has neither a tender nor a bunker and onboard water tanks. The train in "Over a Barrel" is similarly lacking in any of these features, and even has ponies pulling the train.
  • A common error in many cartoons is for engines to be operated by only the driver (engineer in American terms), with the fireman being mysteriously absent.
  • The Transformers: Astrotrain's locomotive form has no tender. More forgivable in this case than in others, because of the whole "really an alien robot" thing, but it still ruins any chance of him passing as a proper locomotive.

Real Life

  • The Soviet Union used a broader rail gauge then the rest of Europe, posing some potential logistics problems for Nazi Germany which they solved in typical Nazi fashion by using slave labour to change captured rail lines in former Soviet territory from Russian gauge to Standard gauge. They also transshipped loads and even regauged cars by the simple expedients of swapping the car bodies to a new set of bogies (trucks in American parlance). While this worked well as a stop-gap it was uneconomical for long term use since changing rail gauge is so simple—just unspike the rail, shift it three and a half inches, and spike it back down—that a relatively small crew could regauge an entire line in a remarkably short period of time. When the Russians recaptured an area they simply set the track back to Russian gauge, unless the Germans had also cut off or replaced the crossties, in which case they had to be replaced.
  • The lack of railroads as supply lines also played a hand in the outcome of The American Civil War. Southern leaders neglected to take into account that the Northern states had a very well established railroad system, and more industrialization in general. The South, meanwhile, had a very incomplete and disjointed rail system, giving the North the advantage in moving troops and supplies around.
  • Runaway trains just do not happen in normal operation, due to the entire braking system being designed in a fail-safe manner. Any loss of pressure in the brake line or command authority in an electric control system will automatically apply the brakes on any set of wagons built after the 1870s, and most heavily-laden trains had a brake van/caboose at the rear before that. Almost all passenger and many freight locomotives contain alertness features that sense if there is a live operator and stop the train if there is not.
    • That said, the fail safety of the braking system can be disabled, which leads to a number of runaway incidents every year. However, due to brake test requirements, runaways are usually just parked cars or trainsets that get loose from a yard.
    • Improper handling of long freight trains can lead to a complete loss of braking air resulting in a runaway. Overloaded trains can also have insufficient braking force to stop the mass. Some freight locomotives are not equipped with crew alertness (Deadman) devices, and some that are can be circumvented either deliberately or accidentally during the course of a Hollywood Heart Attack.
    • Though this is almost always true now, there are things that can go wrong to result in a runaway train. In a particularly infamous incident during the 1950s, a GG-1 locomotive wound up parked in what is now the Washington Union Station food court after some valves on the brakes got stuck. With that said, the whole affair was surprisingly free of drama (the relevant parts of the station were cleared in an orderly fashion, while most of the passengers just thought they'd had a rough stop), and incidents like that are hardly long enough for even a TV episode.
    • Rather than a train's brakes being out of commission, as usually happens in "runaway train" scenarios in fiction, Real Life accidents can and do happen if there's a sudden and unplanned need for a train to stop. Vehicles stalled out on the tracks are a common reason why a train might crash into something, simply because it takes a long time for even perfectly-functional brakes to halt anything so heavy.
    • Brake failure is more likely in a Lac-Mégantic style disaster than in a runaway.
  • If it is required to blow a train up in a UK drama plot, expect the train to be an Electric Multiple Unit or Diesel Multiple Unit of the Mark 1 slam-door stock variety. These were withdrawn from mainline service in 2005, although a number run on heritage lines. Train companies don't like you blowing up their Desiros or Pacers. Although there are plenty of enthusiasts who would enjoy that a lot.
  • During filming of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, they ran into this trope while filming the Hogwarts Express in Scotland - the engine used was built by the Great Western Railway, which had a wider loading gauge than was normal in Britain. This meant that the engine fouled station platforms when being driven to filming locations. Slightly ironic, given that most on-screen railway inaccuracies could have been satisfactorily resolved by saying that A Wizard Did It.
  • Another one from Soviet Russia: The most drive wheels ever on an unarticulated engine is 14, 7 on each side. The middle wheels had no flanges so they could come off the rails when going around corners. And the engine was way too big for the rails.
  • One which turns up in real-world news reports and many fictional works is the belief that severing a coupling between two vehicles in a moving train inevitably leads to a huge crash. Passenger trains in developed countries since the early 20th century, and freight trains since after World War II, have automatic continuous braking systems that will automatically safely slow and stop a train if a coupling breaks. In earlier times, it was possible for a part of a train that broke off to run away unbraked and derail or collide with something (including possibly the front half of the train). However, even then breaking a coupling would not immediately cause the whole train to leap off the tracks and explode.
  • Most cartoon trains are actually six-wheeled steam locomotives without tenders that cannot decide whether they should be a 0-4-2, a 0-6-0, a 2-2-2, a 2-4-0, or a 4-2-0. It may or may not have drive rods.
  • It's commonly said that train engineers on the job for any reasonable length of time will kill somebody, due to the sheer ignorance of your average person about trains. Police and emergency personnel sometimes are trained to simply restrain a person and drag them off the tracks, since that's easier than explaining that the train they see 100 feet away has already applied the brakes, and it is still going to destroy their car.
  1. True at the time the film was made but not now: the high speed line from the Chunnel to Saint Pancras is technically and dimensionally capable of taking TGV's, but they still aren't allowed in the tunnel itself because of very rigorous fire safety rules.