Thanks to the phenomenal international popularity of her Harry Potter books, British author J. K. Rowling (1965 – ) can lay a good claim to have invented the world’s most famous train. Immortalised in both book and film, it is, of course, the Hogwarts Express. It’s not even her only contribution to famous fictional transport.
Running between London King’s Cross and the (fictional) Scottish village of Hogsmeade, the Hogwarts Express is a steam train which takes magical students to and from their school, Hogwarts. It serves two important literary functions in the stories. Firstly, and this is a common use of trains in stories, it allows for the close confinement and interaction of characters in a convenient way. Catching a train and travelling on it unavoidably brings one into contact with others, and it is through this process that Harry first meets his soon-to-be-best-friends Ron and Hermione. But the long train journey brings the trio into close contact with their soon-to-be-nemesis Draco, too. Secondly, a steam train is properly exciting and adventurous because, well, steam trains are exciting and adventurous. It’s just one of those things that everyone knows (although they are rather more exciting in retrospect than they were in everyday service, I suspect).
Although most people are familiar with Harry Potter, and many of them are also familiar with the train on which he travels, there is in fact is no such thing as the Hogwarts Express. This might come as little surprise, given that it isn’t real. But to be more accurate, there is no such thing as the Hogwarts Express. Like Harry Potter’s nemesis He Who Must Not Be Named, the Hogwarts Express has had many incarnations and different guises.
Originally, in the Harry Potter books, the Hogwarts Express is given very little description. It first appears in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, departing at 11:00am from Platform 9¾ at London’s King’s Cross station. Platform 9¾ is accessed magically by pushing a luggage trolley through the “barrier” between platforms 9 and 10. It is only on Harry’s return to King’s Cross at the end of the book that Rowling clarifies that the entrance/exit is through a solid wall. Unfortunately, there is neither barrier nor wall between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross (though there are ticket gates separating them from the concourse), as the railway tracks are adjacent to one another with the platforms on either side. They are also in the unprepossessing suburban platforms annex attached to the side of the main trainshed at King’s Cross.
It is widely presumed (though not certain) that Rowling was referring to the arched brick wall which separates the twin semi-circular roofs of the main trainshed (which is between platforms 4 and 5) when placing Platform 9¾. But Rowling was in Scotland when she was writing and had no easy way of checking the platform numbers. In the Harry Potter films, Platform 9¾ is shown within the main trainshed for visual effect, with platforms 4 and 5 renumbered as 9 and 10, and very nicely it works too. It’s not the only liberty taken with King’s Cross by the films. The exterior of the neighbouring St Pancras station (in particular George Gilbert Scott’s exuberant Victorian Gothic Midland Grand Hotel) sometimes stands in for the actual exterior of King’s Cross, which is much less ornate, and was at the time of filming spoiled by a 1970s “temporary” extension at the front which ruined the look of the station completely, and which has only recently been demolished.
For the benefit of tourists/Harry Potter fans everywhere, and in a wonderful example of life imitating art, Platform 9¾ can be found for real in King’s Cross station to this day. It’s currently located in the new western concourse, between platform 8 (the highest numbered in the main trainshed) and platform 9 in the suburban part of the station, on the outer wall of the main building where there is a convenient space for it. Here is Platform 9¾, complete with disappearing luggage trolley:
Rowling has subsequently authored the website Pottermore, which builds on the literary Harry Potter and expands on many details of the stories, giving background for which there isn’t space or time in the books. The Hogwarts Express is given some more history there, and she explains that, “Where exactly the Hogwarts Express came from has never been conclusively proven, although it is a fact that there are secret records at the Ministry of Magic detailing a mass operation involving one hundred and sixty-seven Memory Charms and the largest ever mass Concealment Charm performed in Britain. The morning after these alleged crimes, a gleaming scarlet steam engine and carriages astounded the villagers of Hogsmeade (who had also not realised they had a railway station), while several bemused Muggle railway workers down in Crewe spent the rest of the year grappling with the uncomfortable feeling that they had mislaid something important.”
It’s not entirely clear what year that would have been. Had it been prior to 1923, being built at Crewe would have made the Hogwarts Express a London and North Western Railway locomotive. If it was after 1923 (the year of the great “Grouping” in Britain, at which point the LNWR was merged with the Midland Railway and others to create the London, Midland and Scottish Railway) then it would have been an LMS locomotive. Possibly something like this:
Now that’s what I call a steam locomotive, and it would have been just the job for an express run to Scotland. But such locomotives would never have operated from the LNER (London and North Eastern Railway) station at King’s Cross. On a London to Scotland run from King’s Cross, you’d expect something like this:
The Hogwarts Express has also enjoyed a life beyond the printed page. The first ‘real’ Hogwarts Express was created to promote the Harry Potter books in the UK in the early 2000s, when a railtour was organised, working its way round the country behind Southern Railway West Country class light pacific locomotive, “Taw Valley”. The locomotive was repainted scarlet for its role, with a new nameplate carrying its “Hogwarts Express” title. There aren’t any share-able images of it which I can use here, but you can see this incarnation of the Hogwarts Express via this link.
For the Harry Potter films, director Chris Columbus apparently thought that Taw Valley didn’t have quite the look he was after, and he eventually settled on Great Western Railway locomotive Olton Hall as having a suitable appearance. Such a locomotive would never have run from London to Scotland, and certainly wasn’t built at Crewe, so thank goodness magic can explain away any such inconsistencies. Olton Hall was repainted and renamed “Hogwarts Castle” for its film appearance, recreating a Great Western Railway tradition of naming various classes of its locomotives after historic buildings. There actually was a “Castle” class with members named after castles, and though superficially similar to the Hall class (of which Olton Hall is a member) they were different in several respects, being larger for a start. Olton Hall pulled the Hogwarts Express in the subsequent films, which also made use of famous railway locations such as the Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland.
It is this version of the train that is probably the most familiar now, having been seen on screen so many times, and reproduced in toy form (both Hornby and Lego make Hogwarts Express models which take their visual cues from this version, though the Hornby version uses a Castle class locomotive – confused yet?). An impressively accurate full size replica of the Olton Hall incarnation of the Hogwarts Express acts as the entrance to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a theme park within the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, USA.
But even this isn’t the end of the story. In Australia, where British Great Western Railway locomotives (be they Hall class or Castle class) are in short supply, there was another Hogwarts Express at the Movie World theme park’s Harry Potter Movie Magic Experience (since closed). Here, a more local locomotive was requisitioned to play the part.
It came complete with another of Rowling’s contributions to fictional transport – the flying Ford Anglia from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. A less likely candidate for a flying car than Ford’s early 1960s family runabout it would be hard to imagine, which is sort of the point.
And while we’re at it, we can’t overlook Rowling’s inclusion of a bus (much overlooked in literature and film) in the world of Harry Potter, in the shape of the Knight Bus. This is a triple-decker vehicle used for assisting stranded witches or wizards. Available on an ad-hoc basis and running to no fixed route or timetable, the Knight Bus is arguably a form of demand responsive transit. The books describe it as magically forcing traffic blocking its progress to jump out of the way, whereas in the films it is shown magically squeezing through narrow gaps. It was realised on film in the shape of a heavy conversion of several AEC RT buses to give it three decks, then mounted on a modern coach chassis¹. The RTs were the forerunner of the more famous RM “Routemaster” buses. The slightly more old-fashioned appearance of the RT, compared to the RM (and that really is saying something giving the antiquated styling of the Routemaster even when new) gives a perfect other-worldliness to the Knight Bus. That, and the fact that it is “violently purple” (Rowling’s original description). Like the Hogwarts Express, the Knight Bus has had multiple identities. A Bristol VR was painted to give the illusion of a triple-decker vehicle and used for promotional purposes in America, as was an RM in the UK (it being difficult to undertake tours with genuine triple-decker vehicles which would have trouble getting under many bridges).
The triple-decker RT from the films, which remains the most impressive of the Knight Bus’s physical manifestations (there is a Lego set of it too…) is now on display at the Harry Potter Experience studio tour in Leavesden, UK, where it stands by a special Knight Bus stop.
With the Harry Potter series now complete, it seems unlikely that we’ll be treated to any more of J. K. Rowling’s magical modes of transport. But it was wizard while it lasted…
1 – Sibley, Brian, 2010. Harry Potter Film Wizardry. London: Bantam Press