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Any time you see railroad tracks on television, a train will appear, usually while central characters are walking across it or, even better, when for some reason or another they're stuck on the tracks. They're nearly going to get killed because they get stuck on the tracks. The train is always running on time when it would kill you, it seems. Of course, the key word back there is "nearly"- while this kind of thing would seem to be a high risk endeavor, usually, one way or another, they manage to get off the tracks in time.

Bear in mind that it is very, very rare for someone's life to be saved because the train actually stops; this is Truth in Television, since a real-life train can need upwards of 2 kilometers (over 1 mile) to stop. (Unless it's a subway or light rail train, in which case stopping distance decreases to about 50 meters).

May be inversely linked to the prevalence of rail as a viable mode of transportation in a given country; in Japan, for example, train tracks are only rarely portrayed as something people would be stupid enough to dally upon, unless they are deliberately Tempting Fate, or else trying to save someone else who has fallen onto the tracks.

See Chained to a Railway for when this is done deliberately as opposed to being the result of wrong place, wrong time. May involve One-Dimensional Thinking on part of the escaping individuals.

Examples of Railroad Tracks of Doom include:


Anime

  • Done repeatedly in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. It's the same train every time, thanks to Time Travel, and the main character trying to prevent anyone from dying there is a major part of the plot.
  • The very first chapter of Gantz has a subway train coming just as the main characters are attempting to help a drunk who has fallen off the platform.
  • Inverted in Trigun: The bad guys are attempting to send the sand steamer (essentially, a giant track-less train) over a cliff.
  • In the first Naruto film, the title character is traversing a tunnel when rails appear out of the ground. The train follows soon after.

Film

  • Buster Keaton loved this trope. An especially fine example is the ending of his short "One Week."
  • The big-screen version of The Fugitive has the bus transporting Kimble and company to death row rolling off the road and onto a railroad track when the driver is shot by a convict attempting to escape. Kimble just has time to pull an injured guard from the bus before the inevitable highballing freight hits.
  • In Homeward Bound, the railway is literally the last thing they cross- and it's at exactly this point that their injuries catch up with them.
  • At the end of the Back to The Future trilogy, Marty brings the De Lorean onto some train tracks and notices a nearby crossing signal is blinking red. At first he thinks it's just because of him—but quickly discovers that he coincidentally landed on the tracks at the exact same time as the real train shows up.
  • Subverted in the movie October Sky: The boys rip up the tracks of a supposedly-abandoned spur line to sell the iron for scrap. One of the boys lampshades this trope, asking if the the tracks really are unused. Sure enough, the moment they've got the heavy rail fully out of alignment, they hear a whistle... Frantically, they try to get the rail back in place, seemingly to no avail as the locomotive bears down on them... Then at the last moment, the train turns away down the main line; and the camera pulls back to reveal that the line they tore up was inactive. As the train passes, the engineer gives them a wave and a confused look.
  • Inverted in The Iron Giant. A train does show up at the least opportune moment, but it's the train that's in danger, not any of the characters--the Giant had messed up the tracks trying to eat them.
    • Brad Bird likes inverting this trope. In The Incredibles, Bomb Voyage's grenade destroys the El Train tracks right as a train is rounding the corner.
  • Ryan's father in The Dust Factory was killed when the car he and his mother was in stalled on the tracks--his father had been following behind in another car, and rammed his car into theirs to push them off the tracks just as the train was coming.
  • In Final Destination, Carter deliberately stops on the train tracks in an attempt to prove that he "controls his own destiny". Having made his point he discovers that his car won't start and his seat belt is jammed as the train bears down on him.
    • Although he escapes, a piece of the resulting shrapnel means that Billy isn't so lucky.
  • In the first act of Hancock, the titular character saves Ray's life after his car got trapped on the railway tracks being blocked from the front and back by a traffic jam (which leads one to think: wouldn't an area with the risk of that happening have crossing gates at the very least, if not complete grade separation of the tracks and roadway?)
    • In as urban an area as that appeared to be, definitely; there are less urban areas that do not have gates that that could happen. Would have to be pretty stupid to get onto the tracks without guaranteed room to get off, though.
  • James Bond in Octopussy is chasing the baddie escaping by train when all the tyres of his Mercedes get shot off. He's in luck since the car's wheels are the exact same gauge of the track the train he is chasing is on; so he proceeds to move the car on to the track and drive on the set of rails next to the escaping train's. Some skidding later, he's making good progress when another train is rushing right at him, so he wisely hops off whilst the Mercs gets ploughed right through by the train.
  • A similar car-on-tracks moment is in The Flim-Flam Man, using the tracks as a getaway route until the train appears.
  • The beginning of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes uses this trope.
  • Iron Will: A few kids lead Will to a shortcut across a railroad bridge in order to finish a race. A train approaches from behind and one of the dogs was stuck.
  • The Aristocats: The cats are crossing a railroad trestle. A train approaches from the front, they jump underneath for safety. One of them falls into the river below.
  • Inception: You're waiting for a train...
    • Inception has 2 variations. The first time Mal and Dom lay down on railroad tracks intentionally, so they can kill themselves and get out of Limbo. Presumably, since they're creating the dreamworld, the tracks and train are there because they want them there. The second time... well, who even needs tracks?
  • Fireproof has this when a wrecked car (with people inside) is stuck on the railroad tracks. The main character (a firefighter) dispatches a message to stop all trains in the area, but guess what comes whistling around the corner?
  • At the end of Eraser, Arnold Schwarzenegger uses a train to "erase" the bad guys, by having an accomplice park their limo in the path of a freight train, which might be a case of figurative Chained to a Railway.
  • In film version of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Ron flies the Weasleys' car over the train tracks in an attempt to locate the Hogwarts Express. Naturally, the train is right behind them, causing hijinks to ensue.
  • In Disney's The Fox and The Hound, Chief chases Tod the fox onto a set of nearby railroad tracks, and then they begin to cross a trestle. As their luck would have it, a high-speed train comes barreling towards them. Tod is able to duck underneath the rails and let the train harmlessly pass over him, but the locomotive knocks Chief off the trestle, causing him to fall to the rocky river below with a broken leg. The chief was actually supposed to die this way, making Copper's revenge against Tod more extreme, but Disney thought this would've been too over-the-top and intense.
  • Lampshaded in the german comedy movie Der Schuh des Manitu" with the mule "Apollo 13", who refuses to cross train tracks in the middle of a huge empty desert, because all of his twelve brothers were killed on train crossings. He then suddenly steps right on the track when a train approaches in the far distance and refuses to move in any way.
  • Happens to Sykes at the end of Oliver and Company.
    • Done literally with his pet dobermans, however (they're electrified rails, so when Oliver threw them off Sykes' car, the two are both immediately electrocuted upon hitting those tracks).
  • Trev Diesel from Cars.
    • At the very beginning of the sequel, Lightning Mc Queen and Mater can be seen exploring an abandoned railroad tunnel, only to be chased out by... ...a Galloping Goose.
  • Played with in Moving Violations. The nearly-blind old lady's car stalls on the tracks, and she refuses to get out. The other characters hastily push her car out of the way just in time. Finally aware of the danger, the old lady joins the others on the roadside to gape at the passing train, only to have her car, now empty on the street, run down by an 18-wheeler.

Literature

  • That Stephen King novella The Body, later adapted into the film Stand by Me, has the kids discover that part of the way to get to their destination is over a rail bridge. The wimpy one lampshades this trope heavily, but in the end they decide to cross it anyway. Guess what happens. The Movie version plays the scene faithfully.
  • Fried Green Tomatoes: Ruth's love interest sure picked the wrong moment to show off trying to use the railroad tracks as an impromptu balance-beam: he gets stuck and is fatally run over by a train. Ruth's son also loses an arm this way.
  • The second Alex Rider book, Point Blanc, has an incident where the annoying Fiona falls off a horse and breaks her ankle in the middle of a kilometre-long train tunnel. Alex and her make it out of the tunnel (on Alex's horse), and manage to jump off the tracks seconds before they are hit by a train.
  • The Railway Children, as you can guess from the title, has a couple of moments, including an incident where a paper-chaser injures himself inside a tunnel he was running through, and the moment where the three children only just manage to get a train to stop before it crashes on the landslide-blocked track ahead, using flags made from their underclothes.
  • Like the kids in Stand by Me, Will Tweedy, the main character in Cold Sassy Tree, was very nearly run over by a train while he was fooling around on a trestle. He can't outrun the train and survives, with some burns and hearing damage, by laying down between the rails.
  • In L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, Valancy is crossing the tracks when one of her shoes -- previously referred to as foolish -- catches. Barney manages to wrest her free.
  • Shortcut by Donald Crews.

Live Action TV

  • Happy Days: Combined with Beware of Hitch-Hiking Ghosts in the episode "The Spirit is Willing," which aired toward the end of the last season. Fonzie, who is restoring a 1954 Chevrolet convertible, is test-driving the newly-refurbished wheels with his ghostly friend, Nancy, when the car stalls in the middle of a railroad crossing. When the signal lights come on, Fonzie tries to escape the car but finds himself locked in with Nancy holding him back until the train strikes the car ... but at the last instant, Fonzie awakens and realizes he was having a nightmare.
  • A series of television advertisements, presented by Operation: Lifesaver,a non-profit group aimed at raising safety awareness around railroad crossings, often present graphic commercials urging safety and caution.
    ** One of Operation: Lifesaver's most memorable campaigns was the "These are the next 60 seconds of your life ... " series. Those commercials featured a central character disobeying or disregarding a basic rule, such as driving around lowered gates or driving over a set of double tracks immediately after one train passes (only to be hit by a second oncoming train) and the deadly consequences played out. A clock, on the lower part of the screen, quickly ticks away the seconds from the beginning to the grisly outcome. As such, the commercials were formulatic and predictable (someone's going to die) ... but definitely effective.
    An example: A babelicious college-aged girl, wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans, is driving her sports car at 55 mph and texting a friend as she nears a railroad crossing with a train coming. The ominiously toned announcer reminds audiences of the warning (in this case, "You chose to text on your cell phone while driving") before stating, "These are the next 60 seconds of your life.") The scene will shift back and forth between the train and the driver -- in this case, the engineer frantically sounds the horn and the young woman just presses the "send" button on her mobile device as her car enters the crossing ... and is struck by the train. The deadly consequence shown (the dead woman, horribly bloodied and entangled in the twisted frame of the car) before the announcer finishes with "America's roads can be highways or dieways ... the choice is yours!"
    • While most scenarios involve driving into the path of a train, other scenarios involving dangers around railroads -- such as young teen-agers playing on the tracks -- are presented. In that commercial, two of the three boys walking along the tracks are killed (one after he got his leg stuck after falling through a ledge on a railroad overpass, the other as he was running on the bridge), while the third just escapes and can only watch.
  • Played with in Sh15uya, where the only way out of Shibuya is to cross the train tracks... except if you do attempt to cross them, a train immediately speeds past and blocks your way.
  • In the 1st of November 2010 episode of Eastenders, Janine's car stalls as she is going over a level crossing. Of course, the train shows up at that moment, resulting in a very tense, panicky scene.
  • In an episode of CSI the team solves a case involving a woman whose car was forced onto the track and run over.
  • The TV show Most Shocking shows a few Real Life instances (see also below) of people getting their vehicles stuck on the tracks. At least twice, car drivers take a wrong turn onto the tracks and get stuck, and they are desperate to try to get the car off, so police have to intervene to keep them away. Other time, a crossing with a high rise snags trailers by the height. In all these instances, they were freight train tracks and the doom doesn't befall the people (because the police restrains the car drivers and the truckers are smart enough to bail) but the vehicles.
  • Done in a third-season episode of Fringe in a subway.

Music

  • Mark Dinning's 1959 hit "Teen Angel" involves a teenaged couple's car stalling at a railroad crossing with a train approaching. They actually make it out in time, but the girl is killed when she runs back to fetch the guy's class ring.

Theme Park

  • Before it was retooled, "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" at the Disney theme parks ended by having the car turn onto train tracks and stare down a train in the tunnel. Kind of Dark Humor as it was the last thing before the ride ended, implying the riders death. One of the many reasons its now a Winnie The Pooh ride.
    • Implying? The last scene before the ride ended and after the oncoming train light was the car riding through Hades.
  • Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls at Universal's Islands of Adventures features this briefly -- at one point, the log ride goes through a dark tunnel. Dudley comments that he's "lost his train of thought," only for a train light to appear at the end of the tunnel. Then the ride rockets down the first drop.

Video Games

  • Silent Hill 3 has a subway car that will ONLY roar in the moment you step on the tracks, resulting in your gruesome death if you don't immediately scramble back onto the platform. Made even nastier by a ghost haunting the area, with a habit of pushing people onto said tracks... Later, there's the Rollercoaster of Doom in the Amusement Park of Doom.
  • Half Life 2 features a scene in which Gordon Freeman has to drive across a train bridge. Halfway across, of course, a train comes rushing out at him. Unless the player knows this is coming and plans accordingly, the only option is to drive towards the train at top speed or perform a skid turn and drive the other way at top speed in hopes of making it off the bridge in time.
    • Or, you know, reverse.
  • In Team Fortress 2, you can hear the train coming, but that doesn't stop it from claiming victims who step on the tracks at the most inopportune time.
  • Tyro Station, One multiplayer level, in Gears of War is set in a train station. It is possible to cross the tracks as long as the train isn't passing through. If the train is passing through, insta-kill.
  • Time Splitters: Future Perfect features an interesting variation of this in the Subway arcade level. The difference being that the trains only come when someone pulls a lever in a booth overlooking the tracks. In theory you can kill an enemy with it, but the chances of it happening are slim and it doesn't count as a kill anyway. (just a death for the victim).
  • Mario Kart 64 featured a desert track with a train which would spin you out of control if you tried to cross the tracks at the wrong time. However, if you timed it correctly and very carefully, you could also drive on the tracks through the tunnel in a valuable shortcut.
    • Likewise, In Crash Team Racing, there is a mine cart track in Komodo Joe's boss race. If you time it right and have a turbo, you can cut about 30 seconds off the course (more if you stay on the tracks past the first tunnel... and avoid the oncoming carts.)
  • The multiplayer map Terminal from Halo 2 has a pair of trains that travel at high speeds and will kill you if you are in their path. You will die even if driving a vehicle of any kind, including the tank
  • Mirror's Edge has a level that takes place (partially) in a subway and another that starts near some train tracks. Both levels require you to run down these tracks, and one actually requires you to jump on top of a train. The train is lethal if it hits you, but if you time it right, you can actually get clear of the trains without one coming along.
  • Old Midway arcade game APB had one of these. You ALWAYS had to stop at the train tracks (unless you were fond of getting hit by the train that's always coming by).
  • Syphon Filter has a Corridor Cubbyhole Run in an active subway.
  • The Aldwych subway in Tomb Raider III. As in Silent Hill 3, the trains only appear when you venture onto the tracks, and you must dodge one to access a particular door.
  • The PS2 release of School Days includes a set of endings where Makoto and Kotonoha are in the subway and Sekai attempts to Murder the Hypotenuse by shoving her rival into the oncoming train's path. This has four different outcomes: she fails and falls onto the tracks herself, she fails, Makoto saves her and is hit instead, BOTH girls fall in front of the train and get splattered in front of a helpless Makoto, and in the HD version, she can actually succeed.
    • Also, in one ending of Rape Lay, the protagonist is pushed onto the subway tracks.
  • Yukari of the Touhou games is well known for her control over borders and boundries. One of her specials is to open portals on either side of the intended victim... at which point a subway train barrels through them.
  • Streets of Rage3 has you walk through a subway station, dodging mine carts while fighting thugs and ninja. At least the thugs take an absurd amount of damage from getting run over...
  • At one point in the first level of Soldier of Fortune, a train threatens to run you down and you must duck into an alcove to avoid it. Later, there's a set of rails with no apparent active trains, but they are electrified, causing instant death if you touch them.
  • In Deja Vu 2, trying to cross the tracks at the railroad station will unerringly summon a train to run you over.
  • A good way to get to many places in Earthbound Zero is by following the train tracks. Thankfully trains will not come by and hit you but the enemies are much, much stronger especially in the tunnel areas.
    • After the time skip in Mother 3 there is a train that goes from the center of Tasmily to a newly build factory. The first few times you attempt to walk along the tracks a NPC looking strongly like Mr. T stops you warning you that it is a stupid idea and not to throw you life away when he walks away the dialog box then comments your life was saved. Once you seem to frustrate him to point he doesn't bother anymore you can pass through, but unlike Earthbound Zero there is a train and it will hit (but not kill) you. When you wake up the Mr T look alike will be there to tell you I told ya so.
  • The fourth level of Descent 3 has you fly the Pyro through the subway tunnels of Seoul, Korea. Considered the Scrappy Level by many players.
  • Driver 2 has the "Beat The Train" level in Vegas, where you must rescue a guy trapped in a car parked on a railroad trestle.

Web Original

  • Nyx Crossing prominently features a set of railroad tracks. Though there's no train, the monster seems to be attracted to them.

Western Animation

  • Justice League Unlimited: Green Arrow and Black Canary are chasing the Question and the Huntress through a train tunnel. And wouldn't ya know it, a train comes in at just the right time.
  • A common gag in the Road Runner shorts in the Looney Tunes is for Wile E. Coyote to paint a tunnel complete with railroad tracks in it. The Road Runner goes in unscathed- but Wile E. Coyote is promptly run over by an impromptu train. Of course, this use of the trope is so amusingly illogical that it goes straight through Fridge Logic and into Rule of Funny.
    • One variation is Wile E. building a fake railroad crossing to stop the Road Runner. Unfortunately, no one told the train.
    • Wile E. fell victim to another train in his pairing with Bugs Bunny in "Operation: Rabbit." The coyote has taken refuge in a outhouse and filling carrots with nitroglycern, when Bugs chains the building to his tractor and pulls it into a railroad crossing. Just as Wile E. is admiring himself ("Wile E. Coyote ... genius! I looooooovvvveee how that rolls off my tongue!"), he sees the train coming ... too late!
    • In Bosko and Bruno, Bruno gets his foot caught in a railroad track and apparently is run over, but survives by ducking into a convenient trap door.
  • Something similar happens in an episode of Wacky Races, which seemed to - ahem - borrow a lot of Road Runner gags.
  • An episode of Rocko's Modern Life featured this when Rocko was teaching Heffer's mother how to drive. She manages to park the car right onto a railway crossing just as the gates go down. Luckily they were wearing their seat belts.
  • Sly Fox and Birdie (pictured above) plays this straight, but this is mostly due to it being a childrens' railway safety video from 1992. Almost any time railroad tracks are present (and Sly Fox is trespassing on them in some way), a freight train always shows up. Sly Fox even gets run over by the train at one point, to which he comments "If I weren't a cartoon character, I'd be dead as a doornail!"
  • In an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, the brother of a boy who grew up to be one of Gotham's top mob bosses lost his leg when his foot got caught in the rails of a train track at the wrong time.
  • Family Guy: In the episode "We Three Kings," there is a parody of the train scene in Stand by Me, with Joe's legs taking the impact of the train.
  • In Mickey'sTrailer, as the trailer, with Mickey and Donald inside, detaches from its car and careens down a steep mountain road, it approaches a crossing with an oncoming train. It just beats the train across, and the two barely have time to sigh in relief when the trailer approaches the train again further downhill, this time just missing the back end.

Real Life

  • Sadly, this trope is Truth in Television, particularly at locations where highways and railroads meet at grade or at busy passenger stations. For some reason, an alarming number of people don't seem to realize a train came come at any time, or that on a double track railroad (or in some cases even a single-track one), another train can come as soon as the first one clears.
    • Train engineers have support groups for this. If you've been driving a train for more than two years, you likely have killed at least one person.
    • It's not just hazardous to the driver of the car, either. The Selby and Ufton Nervet crashes in Britain saw express passenger trains derailed and several passengers killed or badly injured in the ensuing wrecks.
  • Railroad tracks aren't even safe if there's no train nearby. The track switches are controlled in a nerve center miles away... if you happen to be walking along the tracks and you happen to be stepping between the rails at a junction when the track switches over, you are going to be stuck there, screaming in pain until the train arrives passes and runs you over, possibly derailing itself. So.... if you're trespassing on railroad tracks stay away from the junctions. You may as well go step on a Bear Trap.
  • However, if for some reason your car is stopped on a railroad track and a train is coming, it is at this point that one should remember that cars come standard with inventions known as "doors". Furthermore, when you are running away, run towards the train (a safe distance away from the tracks, obviously), as in that direction you are least likely to get hit by the flying wreck of the car.
  • "Touching wires causes instant death. $200 fine."(sign on Newcastle Tramway)
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