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.
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.