Sunday, June 08, 2014

Influential Railway TV 2: Love Those Trains

What TV shows did you watch growing up? I had the usual diet of Mr. Dressup, Sharon, Lois and Bram and Sesame Street but, even when I was very young, I was particularly drawn to the small collection of railway VHS tapes at my local library (Barney really didn't work for me, although Thomas the Tank Engine did!). What amazes me looking back is how influential those tapes were in the development of my interest in railways. At the time, I mainly saw pretty pictures of trains, but the underlying content was also seeping in. As I got older, more information and connections were made with each viewing as I kept being drawn back to the same ones. In this series of articles, I revisit and analyze the railway shows which have had the greatest influence on my study of railways. I was avidly watching many of them before I turned six.

Love Those Trains (1984)

A National Geographic TV special, this charted a romantic history of railways based largely on nostalgia and railway enthusiasts. Its depiction of the building of the American transcontinental line is devoid of any mention of Native people, although it does mention Chinese workers and high death tolls. The production focuses mainly on the United States, but also featured South American railways and a special chartered run of the Orient Express to Turkey.

One thing that strikes me looking back is how the show painted a love of trains as a largely elite pursuit, for those wealthy enough to own swaths of California land (for a live steam park), to ride the Orient Express, or take leisure trips to luxury hotels. When more common people do appear, it is either working for railroads, or at the hobo convention in Iowa. This perhaps reflects the target demographic for National Geographic in the 1980s, but it is worth mentioned that their specials were once prime-time viewing on network TV. In terms of gender, it was surprisingly mixed, suggesting that both men and women could both work on and like trains. Women could even train to be engineers (with the help of a rather hands-on Long Island Railroad instructor...).

Overall, Love Those Trains has aged badly, showing a world so black and white that it seems impossible. It does paint a good picture of attitudes from a pre-9/11, pre-global warming world, all from National Geographic's American-centric and piercing anthropological gaze. It was released as a VHS tape and is sometimes available as a DVD-R from National Geographic.