The Hogwarts Express: Of Magic and Machinery

The history of the revered Hogwarts Express truly begins in 1692 with the International Statute of Secrecy.  Upon until that point in time, transportation of the Hogwarts students had been the responsibility of the parents.  This resulted in a wide variety of means being employed to arrive at the school some with rather drastic consequences.  Some used enchanted vehicles, such as carts and carriage, whereas others attempted to travel by magical creature or by broomstick while carrying baggage, often with calamitous result.  Some even tried to Apparate to the school, always extremely dangerous considering the Anti-Apparition Charms that protect the castle and its grounds.

With the establishment of the International Statute of Secrecy, the need to find a means to secretly transport hundreds of Great Britain’s wizarding children from all corners of the country became of paramount importance.  In response, the Ministry of Magic established a network of portkeys across the country, but this proved to be an imperfect solution: every year during which portkeys were used in this manner, nearly a third of the student missed their time slot or failed to find the enchanted object.  Furthermore, many of the children who did arrive quickly became violently ill from their portkey travel and were forced to spend the opening days of the year in the school’s infirmary.  The only other viable alternative that the Ministry could offer – Floo Powder – was strongly resisted by several successive Headmasters as this would compromise the security of the school.

It wasn’t until the tenure of Minister of Magic Ottoline Gambol – related in heart and spirit (if not blood) to  Arthur Weasley –  that a new alternative was found and implemented.  Minister Gambol leveraged her long-standing passion for and fascination with Muggle inventions and technology to offer an innovative yet provocative solution: procure a Muggle train.  She saw the potential comfort and security the vehicle could provide to the school’s students and flt the train could provide a singular solution to this troubling dilemma.

In her third year as Minister, she led a secret task force of Ministry wizards in a daring raid on the train yards at Crewe, in Cheshire, England.  Beyond the actual appropriation of the entire steam train and its carriages, the mission resulted in the casting of not only 167 individual Memory charms but also the largest Concealment charm ever cast in England.  When the sun rose over England the next morning, the citizens of Hogsmeade awoke to find a gleaming scarlet train sitting idle at a brand new train station in Hogsmeade that had been magically constructed that same night.  In Crewe, a handful of Muggle railway employees were left with the unshakeable feeling that they’d forgotten something incredibly important.

The newly-christened Hogwarts Express was not immediately accepted by the pure-blood wizarding families in general.  Many saw the trains as hazardous, demeaning as well as unsanitary.  However, the Ministry quickly quelled this discontent by ordering all student to arrive by rail … or not arrive at all.  After that, students of all social classes and background began arriving each year aboard the Hogwarts Express.

The train underwent a number of magical modifications over the next few years to enhance its security and safety but the next most influential event in its history did not occur until the 1850s under the direction of a subsequent Minister of Magic, Evangeline Orpington.  During her time in office between 1849 and 1855, a concealed platform was added at King’s Cross Station that could only be access by wizards and witches.  This was – of course – Platform 9 & 3/4, from which all students bound for Hogwarts have departed ever since.  Today, nearly a thousand students begin their academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by arriving at King Cross Station in London and boarding the now legendary Hogwarts Express.

The Hogwarts Express is a large red 4-6-0 steam engine, a GWR 4900 Hall class locomotive, and is portrayed in the movies by the steam locomotive no. 5972 “Olton Hall”.  Unlike the Brunswick green that other Great Western Railway locomotives are painted, the Hogwarts Express is painted a bright crimson; this is a point of controversy for many GWR train aficionados in real life.   In the novels and the movies, the original steam-fitted Muggle locomotive has been refitted to run exclusively on magic.  This eliminates the need for any engineers on board.

Each passenger car of the Hogwarts Express contains eight compartments off of a main corridor.  Each compartment can hold four to six passengers, depending on age and size.  Inbound First Year student typically congregate in the second of the passenger cars, immediately following the Prefect’s Carriage, which is the first car after the locomotive and tender.  However, on the trips back throughout the year and then in subsequent years, students tend to take cars according to their Houses, although no official designation is ever given as to which car accommodates which Houses’ student.  One designation appears to be consistent though, that of the ‘Slug Club’ always convening in the Compartment C carriage.

Every school year, the Hogwarts makes six trips.  The initial trip from King’s Cross to Hogwarts School occurs at 11 o’clock on September 1st and arrives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the early evening.  Throughout the year, it will make a round-trip on both Christmas and Easter before making its final trip of the school year back form Hogwarts to Kings Cross station, London at the end of term in June.

For the most part, the school train is traditionally reserved for students and only two adults are ever consistently seen on the Hogwarts Express: the conductor and the Honeydukes lady who bears the snack trolley for hungry travelers during the long trip.  The only other adults ever noted as being on the Hogwarts Express throughout Harry, Ron and Hermione’s tenure at Hogwarts school as students are Remus Lupin and Horace Slughorn.  All other adult staff at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry travel to and from the school by other means.  In lieu of adults, the House Prefects patrol the train to ensure order is kept.

As an official vehicle of Hogwarts school – thus an official extension of the school – the prohibition on underage magic use is lifted and students are free (within reason) to practice magic and spell within their compartments, like we see when Hermione Granger casts an Oculus Reparo spell on Harry’s damaged glasses in their first year at the school.  We see this may also extend to magical duels and offensive spells as well, such as when Draco Malfoy casts a Petrificus Totalus on Harry during their trip to the school at the beginning of their fifth year.  However, we can assume that would not be the norm and that the Prefects on the train would restrict students from using any of the more volatile or harmful spells in their repertoires.

One curious and perplexing fact about the Hogwarts Express is its total length, or “rolling stock”.  In the novel, J.K. Rowling never directly indicates how much rolling stock the Hogwarts Express has beyond referrals to the carriage car that Harry, Ron and Hermione use, a Prefects carriage car, and the oddly distinctive car that Harry uses to eavesdrop on Draco and the Slytherin in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It is unique because it appears to be an open, compartment-less carriage car, effectively a coach passenger car with bench-seating.  Prior to this point, none of the other carriage cars are shown to have this type of seating.

The cinematic Hogwarts Express is depicted in the first four movies as having a total of six pieces of rolling stock: the steam engine, a tender car, a combination coach and three passenger cars.  All three of those cars have identical exteriors and thus are all compartment carriages.  However, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, we see the car without compartments, suggesting that the Hogwarts Express has five cars in that movie.

No matter if there are four or five passenger cars, this presents a number of problems.  First of all, we see no obvious storage spaces, so where is the passenger baggage kept?  On most trains, there would be an additional car (or two) for baggage, but we never see a car that appears sufficiently different enough to identify as this type of train car.  Perhaps it is stored magically, but there is no specific information regarding this in the books.

Secondly – and most importantly – we know that with rare exception, every student is mandated by the Ministry of Magic to take the Hogwarts Express for the trip to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  From comments by J.K. .Rowling, we know that there are between six hundred and one thousand students at Hogwarts every year.  If we go by the cinematic representation, the Hogwarts Express could only ever transport 154 students on each trip (four passenger cars: Prefects car with 8 Prefects and the Head Boy and Girl, three normal passenger cars with up to six students in each of the 8 compartments).   This means that either (1) not all students currently take the Hogwarts Express to travel to the school, (2) the train possesses a unique and unstated enchantment like the Undetectable Extension Charm that Hermione Granger placed on her small, purple, beaded handbag during the events detailed in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, or (3) the Hogwarts Express has a much larger number of carriages than the movies suggests.  In that case, it would need closer to fifteen cars to adequately transport the smallest recorded class roster of approximately 600 students and their baggage.

Finally, neither the books nor the movie discuss or depict any additional stops between Platform 9 & ¾ at Kings Cross in London and Hogwarts School in the Scottish Highlands.  This poses the question as to how student from Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland truly travel to Hogwarts.  As we see Seamus – who lives in Ireland – on the Hogwarts Express, we can assume that everyone would travel to London and then go to Hogwarts from there.  This is somewhat reinforced by Harry and the Weasley family also going to King’s Cross to depart, since neither Harry nor Ron’s family lived in or near London.  If so, this would make for a somewhat illogical and circuitous route to travel to the school.

In closing, the Hogwarts Express could be considered an allegory for the passage from child to adult, from innocence to experience; in short, it’s a symbol of growing up.   While knowing its history and curious facts will not substantially change my project, I can say that knowing more about the train does give me a better appreciation for it, above it simply being a stage or set-piece.  The writer in me is intrigued by the Harry Houidini-level shell game that the Ministry of Magick played with its acquisition of the Hogwarts Express and the stories that might surround that endeavor.  Equally, I’m curious about the tales that could be told surrounding the “For the Greater Good” campaign of Gellert Grindlewald or the First and Second Wizarding Wars during Voldemort’s rise and fall(s).  For now, I hope that this post has given you some unknown insight into the Hogwarts Express and lent a better appreciation for this often overlooked part of the magical world of Harry Potter.

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