Two trains have commanded significant attention this past summer: the Snowpiercer, the fictional train in Bong Joon-ho’s post-apocalyptic film, and “La Bestia”, the freight train travelling from Mexico’s southern border to Mexico City. The first holds the last survivors of a global climatic catastrophe; the second holds hundreds of Central Americans hoping to immigrate to the United States. For these migrants, like the people at the back of the Snowpiercer, living conditions are deplorable. In his film, Bong introduces us to the passengers in a lineup during a routine check as they sit down, one row at a time, in a seemingly interminable fashion. As the images below show, the passengers of La Bestia are less orderly, huddling together as tightly as possible atop each freight car—after all, they are not supposed to be there. In both cases, the threat of death is nearly unbearable: for the fictional passengers, at the hands of stormtroopers; for the migrants, at the hands of drug gangs. So here they are, these two disenfranchised groups, aboard a train that could very well kill them yet, paradoxically, is saving them from the more dangerous alternative awaiting them if they got off it—inhospitable tundra in one, abject poverty in the other.
Hundreds of Central American migrants huddled atop the freight cars of La Bestia.
When did trains become figures of such precariousness? Although this favored symbol for modernity is not without its inherent sense of doom, as when Paul Virilio claims that the invention of the train is also the invention of derailment, the Snowpiercer and La Bestia are symbols of a crisis even before the potential wreckage of the machine. I suspect that what makes these two such powerful, harrowing figures relates to their allusion to movement devoid of progress, to time without change. Consider this opposing picture of trains invoked by writer Jessica Gross in a recent essay:
There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. […] Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.
Surely this view is shared not only by writers—especially those signing up for Amtrak’s writer-in-residence program—but also by the thousands of people who prefer trains as their means of transportation. Trains can in fact be endless sources of joy and amusement. Perhaps this is why the Snowpiercer and La Bestia present quite the contrasting image: the movement of these trains does not conjure the ultimate sense of protection, but the constant sense of adversity; train time is not found time, but stolen time; the passengers’ main job is not to be transported, but to survive.