"Lights, Camera, Action!"

Cinematic Diesels

Toledo's Union Station is the backdrop for Tom Hanks' A Man Called Otto movie. (Michael D. Harding photo, 4 May 2022)

New: 1 July 2022
Hollywood film-makers have used locomotives and trains to advance movie story-lines since the early days of silent films, and later in "talkies". When masterfully used by a movie director, a steam locomotive's synchronized churning of connecting rods and steel wheels, hizzing and clanging of steam pipes, plumes of black smoke and water-vapor sprays could be employed to create action and excitement in one movie, and yet a grittiness and melancholy in another.

The internal-combustion locomotive, in contrast, could simply not supply the character that captivated movie-goers; the diesel's streamlined industrial styling and shiny color palette were no match for the majestic steamer -- especially in black & white movies of the day. An early exception was the 1934 production of "Silver Streak" which featured Burlington's legendary Pioneer Zephyr racing to prevent the death of a critical medical patient. The film used actual footage of the Zephyr during its historic run between Denver and Chicago in May 1934. The film was one of the few in which a diesel was cast as the hero.

Regardless of the diesel's limited use as a movie prop, the intent here is to identify a few hollywood films that meaningfully employed (mere cameo appearances excluded) diesel locomotives to build movie plots. Although there are hundreds of fine railroad videos on the market, they are exempt from this list.

Hollywood Horsepower

Movie: The Silver Streak

A B&W drama produced in 1934 which featured Chicago Burlington & Quincy's "Pioneer Zephyr" racing the clock to deliver life-saving medical equipment.
  • Good footage of Zephyr's actual history-making run of May 1934
  • Cast: Sally Blane and Charles Starret
  • Image: Advertising photo of the Pioneer Zephyr (Public Domain photo)

    Movie: My Friend Irma Goes West

    In this 1950 B&W comedy film, several New Yorkers board the Super Chief and head for a potential entertainment career in Hollywood.
  • Good scenes of ATSF F-unit action at several locations
  • Cast: Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, with Marie Wilson
  • Image: F-units head for servicing after arriving with the Super Chief in Chicago (Ted Ellis photo)

    Movie: The Day The Earth Stood Still

    An extremely well done B&W science-fiction drama of 1950 has an outer space traveler visit Earth to warn of the planet's possible destruction.
  • Classic film includes photos of New Haven electric motors
  • Cast: Michael Renee and Patricia Neal
  • Image: New Haven EP-4 #360 poses at The Bronx in New York. (Photographer unknown / Dave Witty collection)

    Movie: Human Desire

    After WWII, a sailor returns to work at the "Central National" railroad, and he gets involved in a murder. It's unfortunate this 1954 film was not done in color.
  • Lots of EXCELLENT actual mainline footage, and Alco FAs in Rocket attire.
  • Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Alco FA-1s
  • Image: Rock Island FAs masqueraded as Central National Railway locomotives on film. Photo is from the collection of Mac Owens.

    Movie: Bad Day at Black Rock

    Color drama from 1950 that has a handicapped World War II veteran solve the mysterious death of a war buddy in a small desert town.
  • Two nice-looking pairs of "Black Widow" F-units (SP #6151 and #6386) power passenger train at beginning and end of movie.
  • Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin
  • Image: SP 6151's sister units also wore "black widow scheme. (John Shaw, jr photo / Greg Brown collection)

    Movie: In The Heat Of The Night

    A big city police detective from Philadelpia is asked to help solve a murder in a small Mississippi town during the latter part of the 1950s.
  • Movie opens and closes with scenes of EMD-built E7A #103A leading passenger train
  • Cast: Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger
  • Image: GM&O E7A #103A idles in Chicago. (Lee Hastman photo / Craig Garver collection)

    Movie: Runaway!

    This 1973 color movie presents a common railroad theme of out-of-control locomotives roaring wildly towards imminent disaster.
  • DRGW GP30 #3011, GP35 #3032 and GP40 #3081 don a temporary Sierra Pacific identity.
  • Cast: Ben Johnson and Ben Murphy
  • Image: Sierra Pacific GP40 #3011 was spotted at Denver, Colorado. (Bob Jordan photo / Wil Hata collection)

    Movie: Silver Streak

    Here is another one of those runaway train movies with two make-shift friends attempting to rescue passengers before crashing into a busy train station.
  • There is lots of F-unit action, including close-ups of Canadian Pacific FP7 attired as AM Road #4070.
  • Cast: Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor

    Image: EX-CP 4070 still wore temporary AM Road identity when photographed in 1976. (Photographer unknown / Dwayne Pound collection

  • Movie: Run-Away Train

  • The only thing different in this 1985 out-of-control train drama contrasted other similar movies is the cast received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations.
  • Theme: Two prison escapees stow-away on a freight train which has no crew.
  • Cast members: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts & Rebecca DeMornay

  • Image: The film's true "star" leads an Alaska freight consist south towards Whittier. on 17 February 2013. (Chris Paulhamus)
  • Movie: Continental Divide

  • Romantic comedy, produced in 1981, features Amtrak passenger equipment
  • Theme: Big City newspaper writer learns about life in the wild
  • Note: Equal doses of Amtrak's GE P30CH and F40PH-led passenger trains
  • Notable cast members: John Belushi and Blair Brown
  • Image: Two W/B P30CHs pause in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Bob Anderson photo)
  • Movie: The Fugitive

  • Colorful murder mystery from 1993 features ex-N&W GP30 and CSX U18B
  • Theme: FBI hunts for prison escapee who was unjustly convicted
  • Note: Neat crash sequence between Illinois Southern locos and prison bus
  • Notable cast members: Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones
  • Photo: Ex-CSX #1901 wearing its Illinois Southern identity at Dillsboro, NC.
  • Movie: Under Siege 2

  • Thriller produced in 1995 features a pair of GP7s (ex-USATC/Alaska RR #1834/1804)
  • Theme: Ex-Navy Seal fights mercenary train hi-jackers while in "Dark Territory"
  • Note: Lots of great scenery as train traverses Colorado Rockies
  • Notable cast members: Steven Segal and Katherine Heigl
  • Photo: Ready to go before the cameras, 1804 waits in Denver, Co. on 4 November 1994. (Vince Porreca photo)
  • Movie: Under Siege 2

  • Thriller produced in 1995 features a pair of GP7s (ex-USATC/Alaska RR #1834/1804)
  • Theme: Ex-Navy Seal fights mercenary train hi-jackers while in "Dark Territory"
  • Note: Lots of great scenery as train traverses Colorado Rockies
  • Notable cast members: Steven Segal and Katherine Heigl
  • Photo: Ready to go before the cameras, 1804 waits in Denver, Co. on 4 November 1994. (Vince Porreca photo)
  • Movie: Broken Arrow

  • Thriller produced in 1996 features a GP9 CMR #1814 (with Alco trucks?)
  • Theme: Nuclear weapons stolen and placed on high-jacked train
  • Note: Locomotive and equipment spend a fair amount of time on camera
  • Notable cast members: John Travolta and Christian Slater
  • Photo: Good closeups of #1804 during action sequences (Kenneth Lehman photo)
  • Movie: SwitchBack

  • Drama produced in 1997 features two leased ANDX SD39s
  • Theme: Ex-FBI agent's search for serial killer leads to train ride
  • Note: Good shots of SDs impersonating D&RGW power, plus railway equipment
  • Notable cast members: Danny Glover and Dennis Quaid
  • Image: Ex-SP #5319 & 5325 as Rio Grande 4027 & 4028. (Sam Botts photo)
  • Movie: Unstoppable

  • Train chase film (2009) features CPR GEs #9751, 9758, 9777 & 9782
  • Theme: Yard crew chases runaway freight train to avert disaster
  • Note: Loosely based on a real event; good shots of fictitious AWVR AC4400CWs
  • Notable cast members: Denzel Washington and Chris Pine
  • Image: AWVR #777, ex-CPR #9777, stands idle at Rayland, Ohio. (Richard Thompson photo)
  • Movie: A Man Called Otto

    A comedy-drama in which a grumpy old man finds a renewed purpose in life when new neighbors arrive.
  • Some trackside shots and interior views
  • Cast: Tom Hanks and Mariana Trevino
  • Image: Ex-Algoma Central 1755 waits at the Toledo Union Depot on day of filming for its turn in front of camera. (R. Craig Rutherford photo)


    • ATSF - Atchison Topeka Santa Fe
    • AWVR - Allegheny & West Virginia Railroad
    • CPR - Canadian Pacific Railroad
    • D&RGW - Denver & Ro Grande Western
    • GM&O - Gulf Mobile & Ohio
    • N&W - Norfolk & Western
    • NH - New Haven
    • SP - Southern Pacific
    • W&LE - Wheeling & Lake Erie

    Sources: MyRailfan.Com (Tom Habak); RR Picture Arhives; and Ed Weisensel

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