Rail journeys have an undeniable appeal in fiction. Oftentimes, trains that appear in stories tend to have romanticized mysterious or magical properties, garnering curiosity from all who read of them. In modern-day life, trains are seen as drab vehicles of public transportation, yet they truly represent so much more. Personally, I see trains as a liminal zone—a transitory place between here and there where neither time nor choice exists. Railroads have an unchangeable destiny, and passengers are simply along for the ride. Even still, they provide an uncannily perfect setting for all kinds of magic and mishap: between exploring the different cars, meeting strangers aboard, and witnessing the ever-changing scenery outside the windows, no train ride is ever truly drab.
Trains are spotlighted in many children’s classics, such as The Boxcar Children, The Polar Express, and The Railway Children. As children, these trains invited us to a magical new space of infinite possibility and adventure. But the appearance of literary trains endures in young adult and adult fiction, too! Check out these 5 captivating novels centered around trains:
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Just after midnight, the famous Orient Express is stopped in its tracks by a snowdrift. By morning, the millionaire Samuel Edward Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside. Without a shred of doubt, one of his fellow passengers is the murderer. Isolated by the storm, detective Hercule Poirot must find the killer among a dozen of the dead man’s enemies, before the murderer decides to strike again.
Notably, the Orient Express is a real train line that runs between London and Berlin. Though not the same train from the 1934 novel, bibliophiles will certainly enjoy experiencing the restored iteration that is uber-reminiscent of the famed Victorian original.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Jacob Janowski’s luck had run out–orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student just shy of a degree, he was put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It was the Great Depression and for Jacob the circus was both his salvation and a living hell. There he met Marlena, the beautiful equestrian star married to August, the charismatic but brutal animal trainer. And he met Rosie, an untrainable elephant who was the great hope for this third-rate traveling show. The bond that grew among this group of misfits was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he’s really a wizard, just as his parents were. But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, to the magical Hogwarts Express train that transports him into his destiny, Harry finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed.
Now, bibliophiles can even ride the Hogwarts Express at Universal Studios in both Hollywood and Orlando! Grab a butterbeer for the trip, and feel transported right into the magical world of Harry Potter.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost. But then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
Night Train to Lisbon follows Raimund Gregorius, a 57-year-old Classics scholar, on a journey that takes him across Europe. Abandoning his job and his life and traveling with a dusty old book as his talisman, he heads for Lisbon in search of clues to the life of the book’s Portuguese author, Amadeu de Prado. As he gets swept up in his quest, he finds that the journey is also one of self-discovery, as he reencounters all the decisions he has made – and not made – in his life, and faces the roads not traveled.
Whether fiction, real, or brought to life by an amusement park, these literary trains have the ability to transport you to magical (and murderous!) new settings. For more book recommendations, click here.