Follow TV Tropes


Steam Never Dies

Go To
Shown: the Class 38 locomotive 3801, built in 1943 and still steaming in Australia today.note 

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

A sub-trope of Anachronism Stew. The cultural snapshot we have of locomotives, especially as portrayed in children's media, seems frozen in time. The protagonists may eat modern junk food, watch Netflix, and email their homework, but when the time comes to take the train to visit a relative, suddenly it's 1900 all over again, complete with steam engine, caboose, coal tender, old-timey passenger cars, and engineers wearing blue coveralls and tall 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 Steampunk, though some of the artistic sentiment may overlap. Compare Excessive Steam Syndrome. Also has nothing to do with the Digital Distribution service.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Pokémon: The Series usually avoids this, and whenever trains are shown they tend to be modern diesel or electric trains. However, in the short "Camp Pikachu", the freight train the Pichu Brothers are hitchhiking on is pulled by a steam engine.

    Comic Books 
  • The hard-core belief of Professor Steamhead on Ninja High School. To show how hardcore he is, his rival on the Mad Scientist field is a man who supports solar energy. However, it's not so much Professor Steamhead acknowledges no other energy sources as that he does use and consider them - as degenerate (in the mathematical rather than moral sense) forms of steam power. Likewise he considers all fields of scientific study other than "Steamology" to be necessary prerequisites to the serious understanding of steam.
  • Steam locomotives are widely used in Sunnyville Stories. Rusty and his family even arrive in the titular town on a steam train.

    Fan Works 
  • In the Flying Northman chapters of the crossover fic Event Horizon: Storm of Magic, the Company builds a rail line served by the eponymous steam train, since diesel is too expensive to set up for now, they don't want to share their fusion powered trains and maglevs, and because of the Rule of Cool.
  • An ISOT in Grimdark: After the titular event, steam trains become Germany's primary mode of transportation. Diesel is scarce in the Warhammer world, and the spare parts both electric and diesel trains need are rare, but steam engines are simple enough that a competent village blacksmith can do at least some basic repairs (a Nuln-trained or Dwarf Engineer could build one, without much trouble), and they can refuel with local water and coal (or even wood, if it comes to that). Also, the combination of Dwarf Engineers, Germanic Efficiency, modern design and manufacturing tools and a little judiciously applied magic means Reikbund steam engines quickly outstrip anything OTL has ever seen. The record goes to Emperor Karl Franz' personal train, which was clocked at 136 mph. note 

    Film — Animation 
  • The Iron Giant: The freight train that plows into the Giant is powered by a steam locomotive that resembles both a New York Central "Dreyfuss" steam locomotive and a Norfolk & Western J Class steam locomotive. There were no steam locomotives operating mainline freight trains in Maine in 1957, especially not from those railroads, so it's also Just Train Wrong. However, it could be forgiven, because many railroads in other places still used steam in 1957.
  • Thomas and the Magic Railroad: The train Lily boards in the big city uses century-old passenger coaches pulled by a 1906 steam locomotive (the Rainbow Sun from Shining Time Station). Shining Time appears to exist in "our world," yet it still uses steam engines for everyday passenger rail.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • 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 because 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.
  • Batman Returns: The Red Triangle Circus Gang ride a steam train through Gotham City, in keeping with the "mix-and-match" time frame of the Batman films and Tim Burton's films in general.
  • 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.
  • In Octopussy, Octopussy's circus train is pulled by a steam locomotive. This is presumably a deliberate choice to play up the romance of the circus, as the Bond films usually feature trains current to the era and place in which the film is set.
  • Our Miss Brooks: At the start of the film, when Miss Brooks arrives in Madison, she's seen disembarking from a passenger train drawn by a steam locomotive. Very much truth in film, as the fifties were the twilight of the steam age in North America.
  • Stand by Me is set in 1959, and the trains in it have steam locomotives (most notably the train that nearly runs down the four boys on a railroad bridge). It's very unlikely a railroad in 1959 would still be using steam locomotives, unless if it was a short line railroad.

  • Adrian Mole lampshades this in True Confessions, describing his train steaming into London, then remembering that steam is an erotic memory.
  • The Berenstain Bears invokes this trope when the Bear family goes by train to visit Aunt Tilly in All Aboard! The Grizzly Express comes complete with colorful steam engine, coal tender, old-looking passenger cars, and the crew wearing apparel they would've worn in the early 1900s.
  • 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.
  • Harry Potter: 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. Word of God, via tie-in site Pottermore, explains that the Express was adopted for reasons of secrecy, as a train carrying a load of students is a lot easier to conceal or at least pass off as non-magical than having them all on broomsticks or some other fantastic contrivance. The steam train was already a bit outdated when it was put into use, but was used partly because wizards are always behind the times with Muggle technology, and also because, being outdated and not in use, it was a lot easier to steal.
  • 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...
  • 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.
  • In Planet Story by Harry Harrison, 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.
  • Played With in The Railway Series 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 Sir Topham Hatt'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. It is said that Reverend Awdry himself detested Britain's Steam-to-diesel era, partially due to his opinions on how inefficiently it was done and partially because he grew up around steam engines, so it makes sense that in his world, the Steam-to-Diesel conversion never caught on in Sodor. It is later established that one branch line is entirely electrified because it was built to assist construction of a hydroelectric dam. Notably, those diesels that became permanent residents of Sodor (Bear and BoCo in the Reverend's stories and Pip and Emma in Christopher's stories) were often examples that themselves were being retired from British Rail service.
    • The final book Thomas and his Friends published in 2011 and set in the same year, has Pip and Emma being purchased by the North Western Railway outright, retiring Gordon's long running steam hauled express. Gordon continues running local passenger trains and is quite content with the lighter demands considering his age, suggesting by this point steam still in use on Sodor is comparable to real life steam excursions in modern day Britain; primarily for the purpose of historical preservation and tourist appeal.
    • Supplemental material ultimately confirms that the North Western Railway maintained a great deal of autonomy from the greater British Rail network, due to Sodor being viewed as something of a backwater region, hence why the modernization plan was not heavily enforced and why steam engines continue to run on its metals in revenue-earning service to the present day.
  • Many locomotives in the Richard Scarry books and animated productions 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.
  • In the alternate timeline of A Trans Atlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison, Great Britain is the only country to have discovered atomic power. Naturally, they use it solely to power one steam locomotive.
  • Lampshaded and justified by the Woolfonts & Chickmarsh Railway in the Village Tales series. Which was cunningly begun as a heritage steam railway, community-owned, and then microfranchised into an indispensable link in the national network (although with traffic limitations so as not to disturb the villages), to the great profit of the said villages.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Murder, She Wrote: In "Another Killing in Cork", Jessica is shown travelling through modern-day Ireland on a steam train.
  • Petticoat Junction: The show featured the wood burning Hooterville Cannonball running on the mostly forgotten branch line between Hooterville and Pixley. Lampshaded by the fact villainous railroad Vice President Homer Bedloe is frequently attempting to scrap the locomotive and shut down the line.
    • The wood burning Hooterville Cannonball makes a few appearances on Green Acres as well.
  • 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.)

    Newspaper Comics 
  • A lampshaded aversion in Phoebe and Her Unicorn:
    Dakota: Didn't you think the magical trains would look, like ... old? Like in storybooks?
    Phoebe: Right? It's weird that it was just, like, an Amtrak.

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

    Video Games 
  • 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).
  • The Friend Train ability in Kirby Star Allies has Kirby don a smokestack hat that makes chugging noises and toots with a burst of smoke when he jumps.
  • Charge Man in Mega Man 5 is a highly-advanced near-sapient robot from the year 200X, built to "camouflage" as an old-style steam locomotive (a rather Paper-Thin Disguise, as he's also not nearly big enough to convincingly disguise himself as one). One of his primary attacks is shooting burning coal at Mega Man. This is conspicuous, since the start of his stage (a train station, unsurprisingly) shows a pretty modern-looking train in the background.
  • SimCity:
    • The trains in Sim City 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".
  • 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.
  • All of the Locomotive Levels in Super Mario 3D World feature steam locomotives shaped like either Bullet Bills or Bowser's face pulling said trains.
  • Averted in the business simulation game Transport Tycoon and its various successors/upgrades, which do feature steam trains in their appropriate time periods, with diesels being introduced as time goes on and steam engines eventually being phased out and no longer able to be purchased or renewed.
    • Of course the player is able to maintain a steam railway well into the modern era if he or she wishes, but it will become less and less profitable to do so as the engines age and decrease in reliability to the point of hemorrhaging money.
    • Some newGRFs in OpenTTD also allow steam trains to be built indefinitely.

    Western Animation 
  • The Arthur episode "Strangers On a Train" has Sue Ellen and her mother ride the Crown City Star, a long-distance passenger train hauled by a streamlined 1930s-style steam locomotive (noticeably with no tender car). Justified in that the Crown City Star was first built and run in 1935 and has barely had any changes made over the decades, to the point where the passenger cars look noticeably run-down on the inside, and the dining car, lounge car and many of the sleeper cars are currently being fixed up (though the conductor states that they have the snack car available.)
  • Steam is also alive and well on Chuggington. However, it's downplayed compared to Thomas, in that none of the three main characters are steam-powered.
  • The title Dinosaur Train is a green steam locomotive shaped like a Triceratops head that's powered by coal, a fossil fuel. "Rocket Train" introduces a high-speed rocket train similar to modern locomotives, with computer technology that manages it. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one's take), it is plagued with bugs and gets beat in a race by the Dinosaur Train.
  • The trope is present in DuckTales (1987). The most incongruous example was in the episode Armstrong, where Gyro's newly invented robot saves Scrooge's gold train (pulled by a steam locomotive) from a rockslide. The episode later features such modern technology as automatic garage door openers, computers and satellites!
  • Franklin takes place in a Retro Universe where certain old-fashioned things (such as Franklin and his friends going to an old-style one-room schoolhouse, rotary phones and older-style automobiles frequently in use, etc.) co-exist alongside certain modern things (such as 90s-style desktop computers, and Franklin and his friends going to said "li'l schoolhouse" on a modern school bus). One of said old-fashioned things is the trains using steam locomotives, fashioned off the types used from the 1920s to the 1940s.
  • In Rankin/Bass' 1969 special Frosty the Snowman, Frosty and Karen hop a freight train pulled by an old-fashioned wood-burning -type steam locomotive. However, as the cars in this special also look pretty old-fashioned as well, as does the clothing of the characters, so it probably doesn't necessarily take place in 1969.
    • At one point, the freight train stops for an express passenger train utilizing a 1940s-style diesel locomotive and passenger cars (though the sound of a steam locomotive whistle is used for the diesel.) Steam was still being used alongside diesel in The '40s, so it's same to assume that is the time period this special takes place in.
  • 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.
  • Trains in My Little Pony are typically steam trains. My Little Pony Tales features 90s computers and steam trains side-by-side.
  • Peppa Pig, "The Train Ride" 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.")
  • 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.
    • Additionally, the train in the main Rugrats episode "Murmur on the Ornery Express" has a streamlined 1930s-style 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.)
  • 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."
  • In the early seasons of South Park, the trains were 19th century steam trains later seasons however have shown more current equipment.
  • Thomas & Friends 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.
    • In fact, Diesel's main goal is to try to get the Fat Controller to replace his steam engines with diesels.
    • The original author of The Railway Series, Reverend Awdry, makes a point of enforcing this trope because he was extremely opposed to the "Dieselification" era of the British Railways during the 50's and 60's; Essentially, the British government and railway companies were so intent on bringing in the new "innovative" diesel engines that they began slating all of their steam locomotives, even ones that just rolled out of the factory, for scrapping. Not only was this a massive waste of money, it also became a rather embarrassing issue when the diesels turned out to be...not as reliable as they were supposed to be. This is the reason why diesels in the series were usually depicted as the bad guys (with exceptions like Rusty, Mavis and BoCo) and why many of them tended to suffer from mechanical breakdowns.
  • Astrotrain, of Transformers: Generation 1, is a triple changer, with his altmodes being a Class D51 steam locomotive or a shuttle orbiter. The former was retired in 1975, a decade before the character debuted. Later comics have him switching to either a modern diesel-electric train or some kind of space train, or continuing to maintain the steam engine altmode well into the aughts. Being a giant space robot powered by energon and capable of flight, Astrotrain presumably considers these differences to be semantics.
  • The train in WordWorld is a large blue steam locomotive shaped like the word "TRAIN" that is for some reason fueled 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!
    Real Life 
  • LNER Peppercorn Class A1 60163, named Tornado, was the first all-new steam locomotive built in the United Kingdom since 1960, built in 2008 to the same specification as the rest of the Class A1 locomotives that preceded it. While it's mostly seen on heritage railtours, Tornado is mainline certified. There's even been several occasions when its assistance has been required in modern situations, such as hauling broken down trains clear of the line and rescuing passengers stranded by heavy snowfall! After 14 years of service, it's currently receiving a routine overhaul as of 2022, but it's only a matter of time until Tornado heads back out onto the mainline to continue its adventures.
  • The Denver and Rio Grande Western, a network which ran from New Mexico, Colorado and into Utah; was quick to retire steam on its mainline routes due to the high desert it ran through.note  An exception to this was the San Juan Extension, a worn out narrow gauge line from Alamosa to Durango, with two main branches to Silverton, Colorado and Farmington, New Mexico. The narrow gauge line was simply antiquated, and the DRGW expected to be able to abandon it at short notice so it simply never bothered buying the needed narrow gauge diesels to upgrade the line. The popularity of The Wild West genre in the 1950's brought a tourist boom to the Silverton branch, and an oil boom in Farmington required regular trains of pipe and oil drilling equipment in and out of the the region; and the DRGW soon found itself trying to balance operating both its standard gauge modernized diesel line with an antiquarian narrow gauge steam operation they just couldn't get rid of.
    • When oil train demand finally ended, the DRGW was able to abandon the lines from Farmington to Antonito and pull up the third rail for dual gauge operations between Antonito and Alamosa. The Chama to Antonito segment of the line was saved and became the "Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad" in 1971. Despite wanting to abandon all of the steam hauled narrow gauge, the Federal Government forced the Silverton Branch to remain operating for passenger trains thanks to the Tourist Bump it continued to receive in western movies and television. In 1980 the DRGW finally sold the steam hauled Silverton Branch to new owners who have operated it still using steam locomotives as the "Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad" ever since.note 
  • A British example comparable to the Durango & Silverton in the US is the Vale of Rheidol Railway in Wales. As similar preserved heritage lines started taking off in the region, so to did tourist traffic on this scenic narrow gauge steam line that was operated by the nationalized British Rail system. The line became famous as the last place on the BR network that ran steam, and almost half jokingly several of the steam locomotives received the BR diesel blue paint livery to designate their place as part of the national system. The Vale of Rheidol was finally sold to private hands in 1989, ending the last official use of BR steam.
  • 15 steam locomotives arrived at Northwestern Steel and Wire for scrapping in 1960. Realizing the engines were still in relatively good shape, the company decided to just keep running them as inter-plant locomotives. For another 20 years the plant ran the steam locomotives until they were retired for good in 1980.
    • The Crab Orchard and Egyptian Railway similarly refused to give up on steam locomotives, running their fleet in regular train service until 1986 when the last steam engine operating on the line suffered damage which was too costly to repair. Many consider the Crab Orchard's end of steam to be the true ending of traditional steam railroading in America.
  • In 1944, Union Pacific bought its final steam locomotive, an Alco 4-8-4 numbered 844. The UP has never retired this unit, resulting in it outlasting (by decades) the diesels meant to replace it. Sometime in the 1990s, 844 was returning to its home base when the crew found themselves stuck behind a broke down and stalled diesel freight. 844 was added to the rear of the consist and helped the train over the hill.