All Aboard! Five SFF Stories About Trains and Railways

 One of the mainstays of Ontario’s economy is the production of top-quality high-speed rail feasibility studies. Please understand that we have no intention of ever actually building such things. Indeed, passenger rail travel in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada is in inexorable decline. Still, reading about speculative rail systems is jolly fun. Thus, the studies—and also fictional works like these five stories about trains, each one remarkable in its own way.


The Roads Must Roll” by Robert Heinlein (1940)

America’s economy is dependent on the Roads, rolling belts that host whole communities. Therefore, America’s economy is dependent on the workers who make the Roads roll. The strike of ‘66 showed the power of the workers’ righteous fury. The management took this lesson from the strike: do your level best to ensure that workers never again have sufficient will and unity to strike. Management assures itself that the workers are well paid and get ample benefits. This should be enough to quell discontent. Right?

The Functionalists believe that that if America’s economy is utterly dependent on the Roads, then whoever controls the Roads should rightly give the orders. Who better than the Guild, the people whose hard work makes the Roads roll? Specifically, who better than Guild member Van Kleeck, a man utterly committed to gaining personal power and utterly indifferent to the cost his quest might inflict on others. An anti-union screed typical of its time.



Inverted World by Christopher Priest (1974)

The City of Earth creeps across a surrealistic landscape under a distorted sun at a snail’s pace: one mile in ten days. Forever pursuing the enigmatic optimum, the City’s population is organized around the task of keeping the City moving. Track creates the rails on which the City moves, Traction propels the City, the Militia guards the City from the barbarians around it, and surveyors like Helward Mann scout the path Earth will follow.

It’s a difficult existence. Work is burdensome and constant. The women of the City bear few children; the City must draft barbarian women to bear children. Nevertheless, Helward and people like him do their bit to keep their home crawling westward. Now, however, the journey may be at its end. Ahead of the City is an ocean, vast and unbridgeable…



Supertrain by Donald E. Westlake and Earl W. Wallace (1979)

No discussion of speculative train systems would be complete without mentioning NBC’s remarkable (if short-lived) television series.

Winfield Root, chairman of the Trans Allied Corporation, commands the construction of an “atom-powered steam turbine machine capable of crossing this country in thirty-six hours.” In a scant twenty-two months, Trans Allied’s visionary engineers race from concept to finished product. America finally has the nuclear-powered train absolutely nobody except one flamboyantly bewhiskered oligarch has requested!

The Supertrain is huge. It runs on special broad-gauge rails and boasts a bewildering range of amenities: stores, gymnasiums, a pool, a medical centre, and of course, the disco no late-1970s community could do without. Like some sort of land-going Love Boat, it offers almost anything a person could want, save perhaps for any choice in destination (If your destination is not track adjacent—special-track adjacent, in this case—you cannot use Supertrain to get there.)

Supertrain offers its passengers luxury, adventure, romance, and a weird mismatch between its internal and external dimensions. What did it offer NBC as the series failed to launch? A close brush with bankruptcy.



Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn (2006)

Detective Frank Compton, investigating a mysterious death, uses a train ticket found on the corpse. This is no ordinary train ticket. Ordinary trains span continents; the Quadrail spans the stars.

As it turns out, he may be just what the Quadrail system needs. The alien who administers the Quadrail tries to intercept plotters and saboteurs before they can disrupt service. Too bad that the alien is lousy at intelligence work. Now, Frank may be a hairless ape from an unremarkable world, but he’s also a former intelligence officer—one who might be the last, best hope of the Quadrail…and the people of Earth.



The New Year Train” by Hao Jingfang

The innovative Homeward Bound train is a response to the enormous transport demands of the Spring Festival season, during which millions of people travel home for the holidays. It sets out…and vanishes. The train and its fifteen hundred passengers have inexplicably disappeared.

The genius Li Dapang, who designed the new train, tells skeptical reporters that there is no need to panic. The mass disappearance was expected. Everyone on the train is alive and well. They’re merely traversing a point in the space-time continuum previously unknown to humanity. Li is utterly confident the train will reappear! (Albeit at space-time coordinates as yet to be determined…)



No doubt some of you are even now raising steam to berate me for omitting some railway-focused work. What can I say? Sometimes Atlas shrugs. Feel free mention the works I overlooked in the comments below.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.



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