Extreme Trains: The Complete Season One
A&E Video // Unrated // $19.95 // June 30, 2009
Review by Aaron Beierle | posted July 31, 2009
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One area where the US continues to lag the rest of the world is in train travel. Other countries have been hard at work building high-speed rail lines, while the US has been - at least in recent years - taking away lines (the Three Rivers Amtrak line, as well as the Amtrak connection between New Orleans and Florida - which also resulted in making train travel from the West coast to Florida difficult.)

While train travel admittedly has its downsides (delays, sheer time involved), many train lines across the US go through scenery that's not only utterly remarkable, but that one couldn't otherwise see (for example, the route right along the Hudson River from Albany, NY to New York City.)

For those rail fans out there, the History Channel has provided the quite enjoyable series "Extreme Trains", which aired on the channel earlier this year. The series is hosted by Matt Brown, an actual railroad conductor from Maine, who certainly seems to have a love for trains - at various points throughout the episodes, he also takes on some of the various other jobs located throughout the train.

Two episodes that I'd like to highlight are two that are probably the most relatable to everyone: "Overnight Traveler" and "High-Speed Train", which look at the Empire Builder and Acela Express, respectively. The "Overnight Traveler" episode is the best of the season, taking a fascinating "behind-the-scenes" look at what it takes to get the "Empire Builder" train and all of its passengers from Chicago all the way to Seattle - 2200 miles in just about two days time.

Starting with a look at the preparation process for both the passengers (waiting room, loading hundreds of items of baggage and boarding 400 passengers and getting them settled) to the crew (cleaning the train, washing the train, a discussion of the parts and pieces of the engine and the tons of food that have to be loaded onto the train from the supply area.) It's amazing to see the wealth of tasks that have to be done in the hours before the Empire Builder takes off. Throughout the show, the program smoothly veers between the present day trip and providing a history of the line, from the popularity and prestige of rail travel decades ago to an engaging talk about the immense difficulty that the rail workers encountered when the line was initially built. At one point, Matt tries to see what it was like for workers in the early years of passenger rail to try to clear several feet of snow on the snowy mountain tracks (today, of course, giant snow plows clear the tracks in the Cascades.)

Back on the train, host Matt visits the engine to guide viewers through the operation of the train, with the interesting tidbit that the engineer has to touch the controls every thirty seconds in order for the train to be aware that the engineer hasn't fallen asleep. If not touched, the train will stop. Workers in the train's dining area haven't got a particularly easy job, trying to serve and prepare as many as hundreds of meals while the train is racing along at nearly 80MPH. There's no rest for the workers, as conductors and attendants work throughout the night. My only issue with this episode is that the ending is a little abrupt, and the episode really doesn't touch on Glacier National Park, which is goes through on the way to Seattle.

Also quite interesting is an episode that features a ride on the Acela Express - Amtrak's high-speed rail line - from Washington, DC's Union Station to Boston at speeds up to 150MPH, for a scheduled trip time of just under 7 hours between the cities (with a stop in NYC in-between.) There's only 20 of the Acela trains in existence, at a cost of $25M a piece; the popular trains must be quickly checked by a crew, given how many trips the group of trains must make per day.

Once again, the episode does a fine job of moving in-between looks at the history of the track and the current ride. The Acela manages to keep at high speed due to a "unique" ability to tilt lightly when zipping around corners. Given that the track system dates back to the 1800's, it's not exactly the most high-speed ready, but reinforcement of the tracks a few years ago did help matters. Once again, Matt gets a chance to do many of the jobs that are required for the trains to go from point A to point B to point C and beyond. We also get a rare view into the dispatch center, where those involved have to guide trains throughout the incredibly busy Northeastern corridor.

Episodes: Coal Train, Freight Train, High-Speed Train, Ice Cold Express, Steam Train, Transcontinental, Overnight Traveler and Circus Train.


VIDEO: The series is presented in 1.33:1 full-frame by A & E, and picture quality remains just fine throughout the majority of the episodes. Sharpness and detail are satisfactory during most scenes, and the only real concern is some minor shimmering and a few slight traces of pixelation. Colors looked bright and natural, appearing well-saturated and never smeary or problematic.

SOUND: Dolby Stereo presentation that remained clean and clear.

EXTRAS: Additional/deleted footage is included - there's some mildly interesting moments included, but nothing that needed to be in the final program.

Final Thoughts: "Extreme Trains" is a pretty fascinating program, showing the remarkable amount of work it takes to get trains cross-country and the extraordinary work of many of the crew members who are responsible for the rail system in this country.

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