History Channel // 2008 // 376 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // July 2nd, 2009
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Okay, it's not that extreme. In fact, Extreme Trains isn't really a very good title for this History Channel series. The trains involved aren't truly "extreme" -- they're the bread and butter of the American rail transportation system. But "Complex and Modern Intermodal Transportation Backbone of the US" doesn't really have much of a ring to it...
Oh, Extreme Trains tries to be "extreme," presumably to "appeal" to "today's" "tweens and teens." There's a lot of "active" camera work -- some (ahem) might describe it as "drunken" camera work, some pseudo-hip rock in the background, and an energetic host. It's totally unnecessary, and largely annoying. It's almost as if the producers wanted to out-MTV MTV or something. (I can almost picture the pitch meeting: "It's like The Hills...except it's The Trains!!!") Thankfully, they failed miserably. Extreme Trains is completely different from MTV in two major ways: it is informative, and it is entertaining.
This DVD contains all eight episodes of the show's first season, which were aired on the History Channel in late 2008. Each episode deals with a specific train or route, and uses that train/route to explore various topics in, and aspects of, railroading. Each episode is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, with the original broadcast Dolby stereo for audio. The two discs are laid out as follows:
* "Coal Train"
The first episode follows a heavy Norfolk Southern coal train from the mines in Western Pennsylvania, through the Appalachians, to its final (and sole) destination, a major coal-fired power plant in central PA.
* "Freight Train"
A BNSF fast freight from the Port of Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas, is used to illustrate how containerization has revolutionized transportation.
* "High Speed Train"
The show takes an in-depth look at the Acela Express, America's only high-speed passenger rail service.
* "Ice Cold Express"
An express refrigerated freight ("reefer") train brings fresh produce from Washington State to New York.
* "Steam Train"
Matt rides the Union Pacific's #844, the last steam locomotive in active service in the US, on a special trip between Denver and Cheyenne.
* "Overnight Traveler"
Amtrak's "Empire Builder," its most popular overnight cross-country passenger route, travels from Chicago through the northern Rockies to Seattle, along a route originally built by James J. Hill's Great Northern Railway.
* "Circus Train"
The one-of-a-kind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train is a logistical nightmare, but a virtual necessity for the circus.
The Union Pacific's Omaha-to-Sacramento freight service follows the path of the original Transcontinental Railway.
Against all odds, Extreme Trains is a thorough, nearly complete look at contemporary American railroading. In eight 45-minute episodes, the show manages to touch upon almost every aspect of the railroad business today, and covers a good deal of rail history as well. The individual shows are well-paced and move along quickly -- if you have even a moderate interest in railroading, these episodes will seem to be over before you know it, leaving you hungry for more. Each episode features one or two diversions from the main subject matter, which usually touch on how things were done during the age of steam in railroading. The contrast between the incredibly complex and dangerous steam locomotives of yesteryear and today's safe, efficient diesel engines highlights and emphasizes how far railroad technology has come in 150 years.
A key part of the show's energy and pace is its kinetic host, Matt Bown. Bown, a great big teddy bear of a man, has an almost childlike excitement about all things trains. At first, it's off-putting, because you can't believe it's not phoniness. Once you realize that he's absolutely sincere in his excitement, it's hard to not pick up some of that enthusiasm yourself. Bown -- who is a conductor for a railroad in Maine -- also does a great job at explaining the technology on display in terms that the average person can understand, but he never comes off as overly simplistic or condescending to the audience. He also pulls a bit of a Mike Rowe and gets his hands dirty, doing everything from greasing steam locomotive wheels to chopping ice off of the tracks in a Cascades tunnel.
Fair warning for railroad buffs: this series is clearly targeted at people with a casual interest in railroading, i.e. people with little to no knowledge about railroading. If you're a hard-core rail fan, these shows might be too basic for you. You'll probably still enjoy them; you just won't learn anything new. (You might be surprised, though, at how many topics this series manages to cover in its eight episodes.) For everyone else, these shows are a great introduction to the world of railroading. The information is presented at a level that is simple enough for children to follow, but not too simplistic to interest adults. It's nearly perfect. But for the unnecessary "extremeness" and the unfortunate nonanamorphic transfer, this would be the introductory railroading DVD. Instead, it's just a really great railroading DVD.
Not guilty. I hope we get to see more of Matt Bown and his beloved trains in the future.
Review content copyright © 2009 David Ryan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 376 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site