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Steam Never Dies

"Diesel is for unbelievers
Electricity is wrong
Steam has got the power that will pull us along."
— "Light at the End of the Tunnel," Starlight Express

A sub-trope of Anachronism Stew. The cultural snapshot we have of locomotives, especially as portrayed in children's literature, seems frozen in time. The protagonists may eat modern junk food, watch TV and do their homework on a computer, but when the time comes to take the train to visit Aunt Tilly, suddenly it's 1900 all over again, complete with steam engine, caboose, coal car, coal tender, dining car, and engineers wearing blue coveralls and funny hats.

This trope was more general until about the early 1980s. Movies and TV shows might still portray steam trains in exotic foreign locales or on preserved heritage lines, but as the 20th century wound down, Steam Never Dies retreated to children's literature and cartoons, where it seems permanently entrenched.

Within the examples, expect plenty of Just Train Wrong and a general ignorance of how steam actually works in the first place; many works of fiction will treat steam engines like an internal combustion engine by a different name and ignore the finer points of their operation and the infrastructure that they require.

Not to be confused with Steam Punk, though some of the artistic sentiment may overlap. Compare Excessive Steam Syndrome. Also has nothing to do with the Digital Distribution service.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 
  • Steam locomotives are widely used in Sunnyville Stories. Rusty and his family even arrive in the titular town on a steam train.

    Film 
  • The Red Triangle Circus Gang ride a steam train through Gotham City in Batman Returns, in keeping with the "mix-and-match" time frame of the Batman films and Tim Burton's films in general.
  • Justified in Atlas Shrugged Part II. Taggart Rails keeps a steam engine handy, expecting to run into troubles with the more-modern trains they have. Especially when Obstructive Bureaucrats a-plenty make it harder and harder for the trains to run at all, in a greedy power grab. This is after a gross mismanagement of other resources has led to a need to pay the bills that requires energy taxes on virtually every form a transportation other than the rails. Which results in gas going up to $42 a gallon and crippling the road system.
    • Made worse by the fact that John Galt begins abducting / recruiting / whatever all the bright minds that the government had been extorting, forcing said government officials to showcase their incompetence even further with no bright minds to shift the blame to when something goes wrong.
  • Seen in Muppets Most Wanted, when the Muppet gang travels on their world tour on a special train that is pulled by an old run-down steam locomotive driven by Beauregard. It's also played with; the train particularly sticks out like a sore thumb when it's seen next to other modern trains in the film.

     Literature 
  • Played With in Thomas the Tank Engine of all places. The books began being written back when steam locomotives were the standard. Over time, as diesel locomotive technology improved and spread, it becomes increasingly common to see more recurring diesel characters as well as hear more and more news about steam engines being scrapped and replaced in favor of diesels. It is actually brought up that diesels are much cheaper and easier to run than steamers, as well as having superior performance. By the time of the later stories, except for Sit Topham Hat's railway on the island of Sodor, it seems that diesel is very far along in the process of superseding steam, and that the only reasons for Thomas and friends to not be replaced is purely for sentimental value, as well as for them being really famous engines.
  • Many locomotives in the Richard Scarry books are of the steam variety: diesels are also used in conjunction with the steam engines, in such books as The Best Word Book Ever and What Do People Do All Day? In most cases, they are all fashioned off European locomotives.
  • The Hogwarts Express, in two senses: not only is the train anachronistic, it's preserved in a world that generally does not use mechanized technology.
    • Knowing Rowling, it probably has a tame dragon for a furnace. Most wizarding gadgets, like the retro-look radios, appear to have come about by making a magical imitation of some Muggle device long ago, and never changing the look thereafter.
    • Possibly justified; the various charms and wards that surround Hogwarts tend to play hell with modern technology. It's possible that an old-style steam locomotive is the only kind that will work reliably near the school.
  • As already mentioned, The Berenstain Bears invokes this trope.
  • The cover art for China Miéville 's Railsea features several steam trains, although most of the trains important to the plot are stated to be diesel powered.
  • Lampshaded, justified and visually subverted in Alastair Reynolds' novel Chasm City (part of the Revelation Space Series). Chasm City on the planet Yellowstone is connected with its outlying spaceport via a train powered by a steam locomotive, but the train's appearance and furnishings are decidedly aerodynamic, hi-tech and modern. The bullet-shaped steam locomotives only came into service because a nanotech plague devastated the city years ago, rendering a lot of sensitive electronics and electric-based equipment aboard the original types too risky to use. The steam itself is not produced by burning fuel, but is mined from the titular chasm of the planet, which vents it in large quantities, along with organic gases.
  • In Harry Harrison's Planet Story, an admiral who just happens to be a railfan specifically orders a spaceport built on the opposite side of the continent from the mine just to have an excuse to play with trains. His personal toy is a gold plated full scale replica of a Union Pacific Big Boy, the largest steam engine ever built. It's actually nuclear powered (Harrison describes it as powerful enough "to pull a battleship sideways across a mudflat") but it does produce enough steam to blow the whistle.
    • In Harrison's alternate universe A Trans Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! Great Britain is the only country to have discovered atomic power. Naturally, they use it solely to power one steam locomotive.
  • justified in Jerry Jay Carroll's Inhuman Beings; The aliens can detect and disrupt any high-tech machinery. A steam locomotive carrying a manually-triggered nuke, though...

     Live-Action TV 
  • Sesame Street typically played this straight with non-subway trains until recent years, with the "Elmo's World" segment about transportation featuring modern diesel trains. The only other time a more modern train was depicted was in the original 1972 version of "Everybody Sleeps", when a freight train thunders past a sleeping person at a railroad station (to be precise, it is powered by a GE E44 electric locomotive.)

     Theatre 
  • Starlight Express famously ends with all the diesel and electric trains promising to convert to steam.

     Video Games 
  • The giant model trains running around the planets in "Toy Time Galaxy" (and the tiny model train hidden among one of those planets) in Super Mario Galaxy are clearly pulled by steam locomotives.
  • The trains in SimCity 3000 are pulled by steam locomotives, regardless of how technologically advanced the rest of the city is.
    • Sim City 4 had three different trains: a freight and passenger train which were pulled by modern diesel locomotives and another freight train pulled by a locomotive that resembles "The General".
  • Chuffy the train in Banjo-Tooie, which is owned, operated, and powered by Old King Coal, a sentient lump of coal that lives in its boiler (and is an expy of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

    Western Animation 
  • Thomas the Tank Engine is probably the first thing that pops into many people's minds when the words "Steam Train" are mentioned.
    • The books were first written when steam power was the norm, and the steam locomotive characters remain because they're the stars of the series. Although the Fat Controller made an announcement that Sodor would be enforcing this trope when steam ended on British Railways, elsewhere, steam did indeed fall out of favor. Much Ascended Fridge Horror ensued.
    • The TV series started as an adaptation of the books, and hence kept the same characters. Currently, it's permanently around 1960, when steam was still in use.
  • Steam is also alive and well on Chuggington.
  • Peppa Pig, "The Train Ride" episode.
  • The train in Word World is a large blue steam locomotive shaped like the word "TRAIN" that is for some reason fuelled by letters, couldn't decide whether it should have a 2-2-2 or a 4-2-0 wheel arrangement, and no one is driving it!
  • A strange variation on The Simpsons, where there have often been modern diesel locomotives with steam whistles!
    • They even use older diesel models that haven't been used on modern railroads since the 1960's in modern settings. Usually it's an EMD E or F Unit lookalike.
    • This was played straight in the episode "Dumbbell Indemnity," most likely so they could work in a parody of "Hot Shot Eastbound."
  • The title Dinosaur Train is a green steam locomotive shaped like a Triceratops head that's powered by coal, a fossil fuel.
  • Trains in My Little Pony are typically steam trains. My Little Pony Tales features 90s computers and steam trains side-by-side.
  • The circus train that eventually crashes in The Rugrats Movie is pulled by a steam engine, despite obvious late 1990s technologies and references occurring throughout the film. Additionaly, the train in the main Rugrats episode "Murmur on the Ornery Express" has a steam locomotive, though this may have been deliberate, as it was meant to be a scenic train ride to a historic "Old Country"-style town (which also adds to the murder-mystery feel of the episode.)
  • Averted in The Raccoons where the main transportation system is a rail system using contemporary diesel locomotives, although Sneer Industries does have an unused service track with an old steam locomotive.
  • Also averted in Rocko's Modern Life; the only time steam locomotives are seen are on old trains (like in movies, or Ed's campaign train in "Ed Good, Rocko Bad", but all the other times, the railroad system uses modern diesel locomotives (such as in "Manic Mechanic" and "Driving Mrs. Wolfe.")
  • Hey Arnold! had a train that commuted steel mill workers to and from the city and was powered by an old Great Northern 4-8-4.

    Real Life 
  • In the UK, the warning sign for a level crossing without gates or barriers is a steam locomotive.
    • Ditto for Russia.
    • There is a vaguely sensible reason for this: modern trains don't really have any kind of profile that makes for an obvious symbol.
  • Some rolling stock would probably count: Wooden livestock cars used to transport animals were retired in the 1970s. The advent of automatic continuous-brake systems made cabooses (known more descriptively as "brake vans" elsewhere) largely obsolete, but they hung on until the early 1980s when the last unbraked freight wagons were retired. In North America they also housed the train's workmen, now such trains only need just two or three people to run them. The last car on such a train nowadays is equipped with a flashing taillight (called a FRED, EOT or ETD) attached to the rear coupler.
    • And the handpump cars: they are now replaced with special trucks that can run on rails (a sort of modern-day Galloping Goose).
    • It was well into the turn of the millennium before the last 1950s-era British Rail Mk1 coaches and the diesel and electric multiple units based on them were finally put out to pasture. Many of these coaches were originally built with heating systems designed to draw on steam from the locomotive's boiler, which resulted in the decidedly Schizo Tech practice of building steam boilers into diesel locomotives to heat the coaches in winter, and it wasn't until well into the 1970s that the last of the coaching stock was converted to electric heating.
      • North American rail passenger operators had similar Schizo Tech issues with steam heated coaches. As national systems, Amtrak and VIA Rail had generally weeded these units out by the mid to late 1970's in favor of Head End Power.
    • Russian and Soviet trains used one (wood-fired) boiler per passenger car for decades, to allow the car to suit any type of locomotive.
  • In Real Life, one can find the occasional steam train still (or again) in operation even in well developed countries, such as a tourist attraction or a museum piece. Or sometimes they temporarily de-mothball a steam locomotive kept in reserve in case of emergency and roll it to and fro, to keep the bearings from decay.
    • This is especially true in the UK, where a combination of Dr Beeching closing down a large number of railway lines and Barry scrapyard (which was one of the main locations steam engines were sent to be scrapped) being willing to wait while preservation societies got together the money to buy engines, means that there is a large number of steam run preservation lines across the country that run steam engines as a tourist attraction. Most of them have more than one working steam locomotive.
    • In some places in the United States of America there are several companies or freight lines reviving steam power for a cheaper alternative to diesel/electric freight trains, in some cases they run off burning natural gas or are filled with preheated steam to run off until the steam eventually cools - this often happens near power plants or huge factories - but it doesn't appear to be dead just yet.
  • Long Runner boiler manufacturer Babcock and Wilcox has just released the 41st edition of "Steam: Its Generation and Use", the longest continuously published engineering text of its kind in the world, the first edition of which came out in 1875.
  • The Purdue University's sports team, the Boilermakers, has a steam locomotive on their team logo. This is a reference to the origins of the nickname: in the early days of college football, Purdue is rumored to have cheated by paying workers at the local locomotive works (and others) to play for them. Purdue insists that the nickname derives from its days as a heavy-lifting engineering school, but even then, the link to steam power (what do you think they were engineering in the 1890s?) stands.
  • The Hancock Air Whistle was a product that enabled diesel or electric locomotives to retain the steam locomotive "sound" despite lacking the steam to drive the old style whistles. The few railroads that made use of the whistle were concerned motorists might not realize a more modern horn was a railroad warning device and/or persons living near the tracks might complain about the new horn sound.
  • The A1 Tornado is a modern British steam locomotive built by railroad fans. Based on the now-extinct Peppercorn A1 steam locomotives of the late 1940's, it's fully up to specifications for running on modern railroads.
  • In Russia, some steam locomotives and maintenance infrastructure for them is still kept mothballed for use in case of wartime power/oil shortages.
  • Some Youtube Rail Enthusiasts have informally campaigned for Mike Rowe to visit a heritage railway and clean out a steam engine. In other words, to show part of the reason why steam died out.
  • Many countries have steam specials, which are special trains pulled by a steam engines on main lines as a special event.
  • The idea of reintroducing steam locomotives, built to modern standards using modern technology, is occasionally talked about as a solution to steadily increasing oil prices. However, most people proposing these reintroductions forget or neglect to take into account that no matter how efficient the engine itself is, steam-powered engines require twice the amount of infrastructure—they have to be supplied with water and fuel. The supposed cost-effectiveness is negated, especially in arid regions where water is in very short supply. Electrification is generally agreed upon to be the better solution.
    • On the other hand, steam still has its uses at sea, where water is in abundance. Those big supertankers shifting vast volumes of liquefied natural gas? They use steam engines fuelled by burning some of their cargo to get around.
  • Interestingly, many modern trains, especially passenger trains, are propelled, indirectly, by steam power. Electric trains, after all, are propelled by electricity, almost all of which is generated by boiling water to drive steam turbines. So many of the most modern locomotives are powered by steam, it's just that the steam engine is located inside a power plant many miles away.
    • And most if not all nuclear powerplant is steam-driving reactor.
  • Several steam locomotives have served for an exceptionally long time before retirement, which has helped keep them preserved and operating into the 21st century.
    • The Hungarian State Railways 424 class served from 1924 until all steam engines were retired in 1984. Their sheer simplicity kept them around long after other steamers had become too expensive to keep around.
    • The New South Wales Z19 class served from 1877, when New South Wales was a pre-Federation colony, to the end of steam in 1972, five years short of a century of service.
    • Union Pacific No. 844 was never officially retired since it entered service in 1944, a unique achievement for a locomotive on a Class I railroad. It even outlasted the diesels meant to replace it!
      • UP is also (as of 2014) in the process of restoring "Big Boy" 4-8-8-4 #4014 to operation in time for the 150th anniversary of the first North American trans-continental railroad line.
    • Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) 4-6-0 'Camelbacks' served from 1901 until 1954, a pretty solid fifty years.
    • Perhaps the ultimate examples, Cass Scenic Railroad Shay #5, delivered in 1901. It's been climbing Cass Mountain for more than a century, first hauling logs and now tourists. The Mount Washington Cog Railway has some steam locomotives that have been in service even longer.
    • German class 52, known as the war locomotive. While Deutsche Bundesbahn in West Germany retired them ten years after the Second World War, these simple and durable engines seen good use through decades in East Germany's Deutsche Reichsbahn and Polish PKP (as class Ty2). The latter operated them even in early 2000s. And Russian Railways still keep some of them (class TE - captured locomotive) in case of war.
  • Invoked in amusement parks, which typically have a train that takes visitors on a tour of either the park, a small section of it, or a small section of scenery. The train is almost invariably pulled by an electric, diesel or gasoline engine designed to look like a steam engine (often complete with a coal bin full of painted wooden coal).
    • Tweetsie Railroad in Boone, North Carolina, not only uses two authentic steam engines (one from The Edwardian Era and the other from The Forties), but they also use actual coal fuel. It helps that the park is located in Central Appalachia, a region of the United States known for coal mining.
    • Except in the case of Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, where both theme parks run actual preserved locomotives on their in-park tracks, though they have been converted and no longer run on coal.
    • Busch Gardens in Williamsburg Virginia also uses real steam locomotives: they're modern narrow-gauge replicas of real European locomotives and run on oil instead of coal.
  • Many countries still have some steam engines in working condition in reserve, for emergencies. In case of a natural disaster or war the electric grid might be off, oil might be in short supply, but in an emergency you can still chop down a few trees and get water from a nearby river.


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