The Orient Express, operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, chuffed its way across Europe for one hundred and twenty six years. At its height it had five different lines; the intrepid traveler could embark in London and travel to Paris, Lausanne, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Varna, Belgrade, Sofia, and other intermediate stops, terminating in Athens or Istanbul. Appearing in several dozen books and movies (including the original Dracula), it was known to most of the world as the epitome of luxury rail travel.
The Hogwarts Express, operated by Britain's Ministry of Magic, has been in operation approximately eighty years longer than its Muggle counterpart. It has only one non-stop route (from London to Hogsmeade), is more utilitarian than luxurious, and has appeared in only six books and movies. Nevertheless its scarlet steam-puffing engine is known to most of the world as the way students at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry return at the start of term.
The purpose of the Orient Express was to turn a profit; in 1982 the segment from London to Venice had a sticker price of $3,120 per person. The purpose of the Hogwarts Express is purely non-commercial: although riders must have a ticket ("Stick to your ticket, Harry!" says Hagrid) there is no mention of how much, if anything, a ticket costs. Construction of the train was an enormous effort, "involving one hundred and sixty-seven Memory Charms and the largest ever mass Concealment Charm performed in Britain." (Pottermore) Even if students had to buy tickets, it's unlikely that the fare would even begin to cover the construction and operating expenses.
What then is the rationale for the Hogwarts Express? Given the plethora of options, why does Harry's world employ a means of transportation so large, so cumbersome, so slow, so difficult to hide from Muggles, and -- in some ways -- so inefficient, since even students from Scotland must travel all the way to London simply to return to a castle (Unplottable though it may be) in their native country?
We can consider this question on several levels: (1) how does the Hogwarts Express fit within the broader context of fantasy fiction? (2) within the context of the HP universe, why would it make sense for the Ministry of Magic to choose a train? (3) from the author's perspective, what narrative purpose does the Hogwarts Express serve?
Trains as fantasy spaces and places
Susan E. Honeyman, in her article "Childhood Bound: In gardens, maps, and pictures," points out that "writers have territorialized childhood by creating fantasy worlds and friendly spaces for fictional children," citing Fern Arable's barnyard, Harriet M. Welsh's Town, and Mary Lennox's secret garden, among others. "[A]ll these childhood spaces," she argues, "share one quality -- they are clearly bound and inaccessible to adults." (Honeyman, p. 1) Although Hogwarts itself is the main fantasy space of the books, the castle is neither clearly bound (the shifting staircases, the rooms that appear and disappear, etc.) nor accessible only to children (it has a full complement of faculty and staff). The Hogwarts Express, on the other hand, fits this description perfectly: it is a physically limited space and -- aside from the Trolley Lady and the single case of Remus Lupin -- is entirely free of adults, with discipline being maintained by student prefects. Rowling may not consciously have had this in mind when she chose a passenger train as Harry's first step into the magical world, but it is certainly possible that she absorbed this idea from other childrens' fantasies.
A second feature of childhood fantasy spaces, according to Honeyman, is that "the creator...must keep the ‘reality' barrier clear, yet authenticate the space at the same time." (Honeyman, p. 5) Maps, for example, are popular in children's literature because they "stabilize the fantasy, while releasing greater imaginative potential...they also symbolize the tension that exists for the writer between the real landscape and the fantasy which inhabits it." (Hunt, quoted in Honeyman, p. 5) Although the paper's discussion is limited to maps, an analogous argument could be made for trains since they travel on physical tracks and therefore, like a map, connect the real and the fantasy world.
"For the inventor of imagined childhood spaces, there is a constant tension between the needs for confining and authenticating them. To maintain the separateness of such spaces without negating the escapes they enable requires careful attention to entrances and exits." (Honeyman, p. 5) Here it is worth noting that for most of the books in the series, the Hogwarts Express performs precisely this function: it is via the Express that Harry and his friends enter the magical world of Hogwarts, and also how they leave it. Like Dorothy's cyclone or the Pevensie children's wardrobe, the Hogwarts Express offers an explicit physical movement from the real world to the magical one.
Interestingly, Universal Studios is using its Hogwarts Express in a similar manner: "The Hogwarts Express will be the first amusement attraction that carries visitors from inside one theme park to inside another." (Niles) (italics mine) Thus the theme-park version of the train preserves the key element of the original: moving you not just from one place to another, but from one world to another.
Rowling's choice of a mechanical rather than a magical means of transportation can also be seen as connecting the books thematically to earlier stories that incorporated fantastic technology, particularly those of Jules Verne. Verne's "dream machines" include Captain Nemo's Nautilus, the airship Albatross, the unnamed projectile that takes three men to the moon, and a train, the Steel Giant.
Arthur Evans, in his paper "Jules Verne's Dream Machines: Technology and Transcendence," has this to say:
Verne's technology is portrayed as being intrinsically poetic. Bridging the worlds of the industrial and the artistic, Verne's machines constitute a new kind of objet d'art...[T]he iconic significance of the many futuristic transportational vehicles and other extrapolated technologies in Verne's work lies not in their value as technological predictions...[or in their] usefulness as a plausible means to transport the protagonists and the reader...[it] lies, rather, in their role as powerful stepping-stones to a sense of wonder." (Evans, p. 2)
Much of this could also apply to the Hogwarts Express. It is poetic in the sense that, for the modern reader, it harks back to an older era and evokes nostalgia for a more romantic time. Since a train is a quintessential symbol of the Industrial Age, it also links the industrial and the artistic (the fantasy world of the novel). Finally, it assuredly acts as a stepping stone to wonder: not only is Harry himself being physically transported into a world of strange and magical things, so is the reader.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay "On Fairy Stories," proposed the existence of a "cauldron of story" to which elements are continually being added and from which storytellers are constantly drawing. So far as I have been able to discover, Rowling has not explicitly mentioned any of the above as contributing to her invention of the famous scarlet steam engine, but it is not too far-fetched to think that the cauldron's potion may contain "essence of train" and thereby made its way into Rowling's Wizarding world.
But why a train?
According to the Pottermore article on the Hogwarts Express, students used to arrive at school any way they chose but this was chaotic, prone to accidents, and often led to unintentional sightings by Muggles. Following passage of the International Statute of Secrecy in 1692, the Ministry attempted to solve the problem by setting up a series of Portkeys scattered around the country, and disallowing all other means of transportation. However, many students missed their time slot while others got "Portkey-sick" (given the description -- a hook yanking you from somewhere behind your navel -- it's easy to understand why). Despite this, Portkeys were used for over a hundred years until Minister for Magic Ottaline Gambol, intrigued by Muggle inventions, proposed the construction of a train. Over the opposition of pureblood families, who saw it as a Muggle contraption and therefore "unsafe, insanitary and demeaning," the Hogwarts Express was constructed -- no one knows exactly how -- and students have been using it ever since. (Pottermore).
Interestingly, this does not address the question of why all students -- even those from Scotland -- must board in London. Surely a magical steam engine could easily be made to start in Plymouth, say, with intermediate stops in Southampton, London, Swansea, Nottingham, Sheffield, and so on, en route to Hogsmeade.
Can we then make a case for the Hogwarts Express without resorting to the additional information provided by Pottermore, and even provide a rationale for its requiring everyone to board in London? That is, does the Ministry's choice make sense within the confines of the story itself? If we examine the risks and benefits of the other options available, the answer is yes.
Excluding one-offs like Arthur's flying Ford Anglia and the paired Vanishing Cabinets seen in HBP, the following modes of magical transportation are widely available in the Wizarding world:
• Floo network
• Knight Bus
Broomsticks are convenient, certainly, in that every Wizarding family probably has one. However, first years are not allowed to have their own broomsticks, meaning they would have to find some other method. Even omitting first years, with two or three hundred students arriving, the air space would get pretty crowded. If they were all to fly into Hogsmeade it would cause serious disruptions to business and annoyances to residents; allowing them to fly straight into Hogwarts, however, would mean lowering all magical barriers to the castle, a security risk that Headmasters of the school would probably frown on. Finally, a broomstick is only as reliable as its rider -- if a student were distracted or diverted, he or she might never make it to school at all.
Apparition is instantaneous and one cannot get "lost" on the way, but it does require very specific visualization of one's destination which might be a problem for excitable or careless students. Students don't learn this skill until they are seventeen, so it would be useless for approximately half the student body. Given that apparition directly into Hogwarts is impossible, students would have to arrive in Hogsmeade, causing the same annoyance and disruption as the broomstick option. In addition, with hundreds of students popping in and out, the risk of splinching would likely be much higher.
What about Portkeys? Portkeys can be used by anyone, require no skill or effort, and there is no possibility of getting lost or diverted. However, they do take a good bit of effort to set up -- in Goblet of Fire, we are told that setting up the hundreds of Portkeys needed for the World Quidditch cup was an enormous effort. Each Portkey would have to be set up individually, since they would have to be timed rather than triggered by touch, otherwise an unsuspecting Muggle might find himself suddenly at Hogwarts, or an arriving student might accidentally tread on another student's Portkey and vanish. Finally, every Portkey would have to be carefully located so that no Muggles would stumble on them or witness their use. All things considered it seems a rather haphazard method, and the logistics of trying to handle all of this for several hundred students twice a year would likely put too much of a burden on the Department of Magical Transportation.
Hogwarts is connected to the Floo network, as evidenced by Harry's conversation with Sirius via the fire in the Gryffindor common room in OotP. However, it can be inferred that this is a limited connection, perhaps permitting only heads or only conversation, since otherwise this would be a serious breach in Hogwarts' security. Opening up the Floo connection more broadly would, again, be a security issue that Headmasters or –mistresses would not permit.
None of the above qualifies as mass transportation, of course, which is what would be most efficient. The Knight Bus does, but it is small, cramped, designed for short routes and frequent stops, and specifically for "the stranded witch or wizard." There is of course no known reason why Britain could not have many of these -- a Knight Bus system -- that travels long distances, but they would still be small, cramped, and not very pleasant.
A fleet of large Axminsters could handle the necessary travel load, but flying carpets, sadly, are illegal.
As we can see, then, none of the options is entirely satisfactory. What is needed is something that can carry large numbers of students, safely and directly, preferably via a single, reliable route that can therefore be permanently hidden from Muggles (rather than on an ad hoc basis, like a single broomstick flight or the flying Ford Anglia). A train fits all these requirements perfectly.
Related to its capacity to carry all students at once, a train has two additional advantages over all the other options: it provides a space wherein things can happen, and it takes time. Though the first might seem irrelevant and the second an actual disadvantage, I argue that these are key characteristics that allow the Hogwarts Express to serve several important purposes.
First, the hours on the train allow for a gradual transition from home to school. This is particularly important for Muggle-borns, who have no previous experience with the Wizarding world and need to acclimate themselves; the length of the trip gives them time to relax, to begin to feel comfortable, to see small bits of magic being done by other students. It is a relatively gentle introduction to a strange new world.
Second, the journey serves as a mental transition, to shift students into a "school" frame of mind. The end point is emphasized by the fact that the students have to change into their school robes before arriving in Hogsmeade.
Third, the journey provides time for bonding -- reacquainting with old friends, meeting new friends, seeing who this year's prefects are, trying out new spells, showing off new toys or games, buying something from the trolley. Since students spend most of their time at Hogwarts with their same House, or at best students of their same year, the train offers a rare opportunity for wider mingling.
Finally, although there is no direct evidence for this, it is possible that these hours on the train, alone with their fellow students, play an important part in the Sorting of First Years. For many first year students, this may be the first time they have traveled alone, the first time they've interacted with large numbers of other young Witches and Wizards without the supervision of adults. It is a chance to behave freely, and observe others' behavior, and to meet students from all four Houses. This would provide rich data for the Sorting Hat, as well as giving the student some hints about which House he or she would be happy in -- the Hat takes a student's preference into account, but without knowledge he or she can form no preference.
If the Ministry recognized not only the practical utility of a train but also the value of the shared experience aboard it, we have a logical explanation for why all students must board in London: so that all students come together at the same time, board at the same time, and have the same journey, enhancing their sense of community and bonding.
The Hogwarts Express as a story device
Five of the seven books (SS, PoA, GoF, OotP, HBP) cover Harry's trip back to school on the Hogwarts Express in some detail, and a sixth (CoS) features his inability to reach the train as an important plot point. The train is not just a way of getting from here to there; it fills an important narrative function.
First, Rowling uses the time on the train to set the scene, to provide important or useful information to Harry and the reader. It is on the train that Harry (and we) learns who Nicolas Flamel is and, seeing Ron's hand-me-down possessions, that his friend's family doesn't have much money (SS). It is en route to the train that Harry learns about Sirius Black; aboard the train he experiences the terror of Dementors for the first time and meets Remus Lupin, who knows how to repel them. In GoF, we learn from Draco's mention of Durmstrang, that there are other Wizarding schools and that Hogwarts is hidden from Muggles ("If a Muggle looks at it, all they see is a moldering old ruin with a sign over the entrance saying DANGER, DO NOT ENTER, UNSAFE."). The next year (OoP) Harry meets Luna Lovegood on the train and sees The Quibbler for the first time. And of course en route to school in their sixth year, Harry is invited to Slughorn's "little party" and learns that some people think he's dangerously insane. These are but a few examples in which both Harry and the reader learn something they will need to know in the coming year.
Second, and more subtly, Harry's experiences on the train each year foreshadow the central conflict of each book. For example, in SS, Harry needs Molly Weasley's help just to reach the platform; he receives help from Ron in acclimating to the Wizarding world and from Hermione in fixing his glasses. All of these foreshadow the main themes of his first year: that he has to become comfortable in this new world, and that the help of others will be crucial -- as it is, when the Trio must work together to solve the puzzles barring their way to the Sorceror's Stone.
In CoS Harry is unable to get to the train, and he and Ron take Arthur's Flying Ford Anglia (although they stick closely to the train, since otherwise Hogwarts would be hidden from them). Although Harry cannot get onto Platform 9 3/4 he does get to Hogwarts "on his own steam," as it were, hinting that this year he will have to think creatively and prove himself a true Gryffindor.
The presence of Dementors on the train in PoA foreshadows that they will be Harry's primary foe, and that conquering his reaction to them will be his main challenge. This is also the only time that we see an adult on the train, suggesting that there is something odd about this person -- and indeed there is, as Harry and his friends find out: he's a werewolf.
En route to school for their fifth year (OotP), Ron and Hermione have to ride in the prefect's compartment, and Harry is separated from them. This theme of separation recurs throughout the book -- Harry is hurt that his friends didn't answer his letters over the summer and for much of the book he clearly feels left out, ignored, pushed aside. Luna, whom he meets for the first time on the train, guesses that Voldemort wants him to feel isolated from everyone because that way he's not as much of a threat.
In HBP, near the end of the journey, Harry puts on his Invisibility Cloak and goes to spy on Draco. Draco casts a Petrificus on him and Tonks later finds him frozen on the floor of the train. This foreshadows the central role that Draco will play in this book, and also that someone else's magic (Snape's potions book) will be a key element.
It seems amply proven, then, that there are good and sufficient reasons -- thematic, logical, and narrative -- for the presence of the Hogwarts Express and even its peculiar non-stop route. It is not just a sensible mode of transportation but also a shared experience, a trope that connects the books to other fantasies and a clever narrative device to expand the magical world beyond the borders of castle and village. All aboard!
Evans, Arthur B. "Jules Verne's dream machines: Technology and transcendence." Extrapolation, Vol. 54, no. 2 (2013).
"Hogwarts Express." Pottermore. http://pottermore.wikia.com/wiki/Hogwarts_Express
Honeyman, Susan E. "Childhood bound: In gardens, maps, and pictures." Mosaic : a Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2001).
Niles, Robert. "On the road to Diagon Alley." Theme Park Insider, 20 Jan 2014. http://www.themeparkinsider.com/flume/201401/3854/
Rowling, J.K. The Sorceror's Stone (SS), "The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-quarters " (chapter 6).
Rowling, J.K. The Chamber of Secrets (CoS), "The Whomping Willow" (chapter 5).
Rowling, J.K. The Prisoner of Azkaban (PoA), "The Dementor" (chapter 5).
Rowling, J.K. The Goblet of Fire (GoF), "Aboard the Hogwarts Express" (chapter 11).
Rowling, J.K. The Order of the Phoenix (OotP), "Luna Lovegood" (chapter 10).
Rowling, J.K. The Half-Blood Prince (HBP), "The Slug Club" (chapter 7).