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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 1899 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 Steampunk, though some of the artistic sentiment may overlap. Compare Stanley Steamer Spaceship.


Examples:

Literature

  • Most locomotives in the Richard Scarry books are of the steam variety: the only time a diesel locomotive was ever shown in their world is in the book The Best Word Book Ever.
  • 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.

Film

  • Averted in Cars: There are only two locomotive characters in those films, one being an American diesel locomotive from the 1950s, the other being a British bullet train.
  • Justified in Dumbo where the circus train featured in the film is actually pulled by a somewhat anthropomorphic steam locomotive, despite the film taking place in the early 1940s, which is when that film was released, just as steam locomotives are beginning to be phased out in favor of diesel locomotives.


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.

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.
  • As already mentioned, The Berenstain Bears invokes this trope.
  • 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!
  • 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.")


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, while cabooses were retired in the 1980s, the latter was because prior, a caboose's main function is to supply the brakes of the train since early locomotives cannot brake very well. Later locomotives were all given brakes, therefore making the caboose useless. It 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 built between the wheels.
    • And the handpump cars: they are now replaced with special trucks that can run on rails (a sort of modern-day Galloping Goose).
    • And probably tank and hopper cars, since coal and oil are now almost scarce and environmentally unfriendly.
    • 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.
  • In Real Life, one can find the occasional steam train still (or again) in operation even in well developed countries, e.g. as tourist attraction or as a museum piece.
    • 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.
  • 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 A1 Tornado is a modern steam locomotive build by railroad fans. 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 Enthusiast s 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.
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