Since the invention of trains, commuting, traveling, and logistics have never been the same. It’s been more than two hundred years since the invention of the steam locomotive. Yet we’re still in awe of these iron beasts that take us from one place to another.
In some places, these are the main form of transportation. And we can see that they’ll be around for as long as people need to move.
And if they don’t, trust songwriters to immortalize trains in songs. Some songs have to do with the mechanism itself. Others represent a struggle or parts of the human psyche.
Regardless of the lyrical intent, there are plenty of train songs to discover. How many can you think of? Read on to learn about 23 of the best songs about trains.
1. “Midnight Train To Georgia” By Gladys Knight & The Pips
What better way to start our list than with a song with “trains” in the title? Gladys Knight & the Pips‘ version shot “Midnight Train to Georgia” to fame.
As told from the perspective of a woman, the lyrics tell of her lover who attempts to make it big in Los Angeles. Things don’t seem to work as he expected, so he finally gives up and buys a train ticket home.
He specifically opts for a one-way ticket, which tells us of his resolve never to go back to his life in LA. Full of mixed feelings like hope, regret, resignation, and comfort, he travels throughout the night to go back to the simpler life he knew.
2. “Folsom Prison Blues” By Johnny Cash
This tune from Johnny Cash’s early career was an immediate hit and would go on to become one of his signature songs. He performed “Folsom Prison Blues” for the Folsom Prison inmates for a live album recording in 1968.
The song follows the story of a prisoner serving his time for murder. He hears the sound of the train outside the prison on a regular basis, making him more despondent. He imagines rich people on the train, enjoying life as the train takes them to San Antone.
This everyday occurrence drives home the fact that he’ll never be able to experience what those people do. But he entertains the idea of owning the train. Should that happen, he plans to relocate the railroad tracks far away from the Folsom prison.
3. “I’ve Been Workin’ On The Railroad” By John Denver
Up next on our list is a traditional tune that evolved into a popular children’s song. “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” is included in John Denver‘s last album, All Aboard. He would die in a plane crash two months after the album’s release.
“I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” has been around for over a century. It began as a folk song, with the earliest known manuscript dating from 1894.
The lyrics present a montage of a railroad worker’s life. The first verse references the job, and the second, the domestic life he returns to in between shifts. It’s full of vivid imagery, such as the whistle blowing in the morning to signal the start of his work and the cook in the kitchen preparing the midday meal.
4. “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” By The Andrews Sisters
Our next song is a big band and swing favorite. The Andrews Sisters recorded “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in 1941.
The song follows a man traveling from Pennsylvania Station to Chattanooga, Tennessee. He boards the Chattanooga Choo-Choo at quarter to four.
The man shares with his listeners what his travel is like. After leaving the station, he entertains himself by reading the magazine. Shortly after, they’re in Baltimore. He also experiences having some “ham ‘n’ eggs in Carolina.”
Tennessee is up next, and the man sounds excited, knowing someone special is waiting for him at the station.
5. “Mystery Train” By Elvis Presley
This rockabilly favorite takes the approach of many other train songs with the way it uses a rolling percussive beat to set the scene. Elvis Presley lent his voice to “Mystery Train,” a 1956 single from his Rock ‘N’ Rock album.
In the first part of the song, he describes a train approaching to take his lover away. He stands by and watches as the train moves “’round the bend.” In the next part, the train comes “down the line,” bringing his lover, and he sings that the train will never take her away from him again.
There isn’t much else in the song as far as specifics about the train. But we do know that it’s 16 cars long, as if the singer is helplessly counting them go by.
6. “People Get Ready” By The Impressions
Though this song is a metaphor for religious salvation, there are enough train references that we decided it merits inclusion on our list. “People Get Ready,” by The Impressions, appears in the Akeelah and the Bee album.
At its core, the song talks about a train arriving to take passengers to Jordan (a reference to heaven). The passengers don’t need any baggage or tickets to board. They just need to have faith and “thank the Lord.”
Not all can come, though. The train excludes the “hopeless sinner” who will hurt others in order to save himself.
7. “Midnight Train To Memphis” By Chris Stapleton
Moving on to another song with “train” in the lyrics, we have “Midnight Train to Memphis.” This was one of the hard-edged songs on Chris Stapleton‘s album From A Room: Volume 2.
If you listen to the song, you’ll find similarities between “Midnight Train to Memphis” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” The former is a narration from the eyes of a prisoner sentenced to confinement after not being able to pay the fine.
He spends forty days behind bars to serve his time. Each day consists of breakfast and working from morning to night. Every night, he listens to the distant sounds of a train that’s just out of reach.
8. “Casey Jones” By The Grateful Dead
Popular in the 1970s, the Grateful Dead was an eclectic band known for its mix of folk, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and rock. It means that each song they put out has a unique flair. In “Casey Jones,” they bring out the folk element as they tell a story based on real life.
“Casey Jones” was inspired by a real locomotive engineer who died when his train collided with a freight train. In the song, Casey Jones is high while on the job and is operating at high speeds. Perhaps it’s to stick to his schedule of arrival and departures.
However, there’s trouble up ahead. The switchman has fallen asleep, and train 102 is on the wrong track and headed straight for him. He receives a warning but he’s only able to slow down enough to save his passengers.
9. “Stop This Train” By John Mayer
Everyone has surely felt at some point that time is passing by too fast. Like a train. That’s certainly how the singer feels in John Mayer‘s “Stop the Train.”
In the song, the train is a metaphor for time. It’s too fast for the singer’s liking. He calls for someone to stop the train so he can go home. He wants to see his parents again and be young again.
But when talking to his father, the old man advises him, “Don’t stop this train.” Because no one can ever stop time. It goes on, whether we like it or not. The singer realizes this at the end of the song.
10. “Runaway Train” By Soul Asylum
Who doesn’t recognize this song? “Runaway Train” is a power ballad and the most famous song by Soul Asylum.
The song revolves around a man who’s going through a difficult time with his life choices. He sees himself as “a firefly without a light,” whereas the other person, presumably a love interest, is like a bright blowtorch.
He feels lost, as if he’s in a situation where no one can help him. He compares himself to a runaway train that’s “never going back.” Because one, he finds himself on the wrong way. And two, he’s on a one-way track. What’s worse is that he doesn’t know where he should go.
11. “Wabash Cannonball” By Boxcar Willie
The next song, “Wabash Cannonball,” shows a rare instance where a train’s name came from a folk song and not the other way around. The single is included in Boxcar Willie‘s album, King of the Road.
The song describes the impressive sight the train portrays when it pulls into passenger stations. The train is a sight to behold against the backdrop of the mountains or the ocean.
Scenes of nature and seasons of the year come into play as the train travels. The song urges the listeners to appreciate “that jingle, the rumble and the roar” of the train as it comes and departs.
12. “Freight Train” By Peter, Paul, And Mary
This song was written in the early 1900s. But it didn’t see much popularity until the American folk song revival half a century later. Peter, Paul, and Mary lend their beautiful harmonies to “Freight Train.”
In the song, we find the singer riding a freight train traveling at a fast speed. She begs the listeners not to tell where she’s been so they won’t know of her whereabouts. However, it’s unclear who she is referring to.
Near the end of the song, she asks to be buried on Bleecker Street so she can always hear the train as it passes by.
13. “Night Train” By Jason Aldean
Though much of the train-song lore stays within the folk genre, it’s made its way into today’s country music as well. Jason Aldean included the “Night Train” composition on his 2012 album by the same name.
As expected from a love song, the lyrics are romantic and adventurous. The singer entices his sweetheart to join him for an after-dark rendezvous. He takes her to their favorite spot, where they listen to the train as it approaches their town.
The singer finds it the perfect idea for a date night. He doesn’t even mind if the train goes as slowly as it can because it means he gets to spend a long time with his girl.
14. “The Wreck Of The Old 97” By Johnny Cash
One of the most famous train wrecks involves the Southern Railway mail train. It’s also known as the Fast Mail (train 97). In 1957, Johnny Cash recorded a version of “The Wreck of the Old 97,” which recounts the accident.
In the song, the conductor is given orders to stick to his schedule. He instructs his fireman to add more coal to fasten the train’s speed. Now the train will pass by the rough road between Lynchburg and Danville. The train is running at the speed of 90 miles an hour when the accident happens.
Based on real events, the train veers off-track, resulting in the deaths of several passengers.
15. “Locomotive Breath” By Jethro Tull
Up next is a jazz- and blues-inspired song by the English band Jethro Tull. You can find the song from the band’s 1971 album Aqualung. What begins as a rhapsodic piano introduction quickly spins out of control and develops into a timeless progressive-rock hit.
The lyrics of the song mention “train” as a metaphor for something else. We find a man struggling with something out of his control. He feels as though his life is a locomotive out of control and disrupting the lives around him.
According to the band, the train in the song refers to overpopulation. It has grown exponentially. Like a train, “it won’t stop going, no way to slow down.”
16. “Downbound Train” By Bruce Springsteen
Our next song is the perfect example of a blue-collar, working-man song, which Bruce Springsteen is known for. “Downbound Train” appeared on his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. but didn’t reach the level of notoriety that other tracks on the album did.
“Downbound Train” follows the story of a man who’s heartbroken when his wife leaves him and travels away by train. To add insult to injury, he also gets laid off from his job at the same time. He finds himself working at the car wash, grieving the loss of his spouse and his livelihood.
All that has happened to him makes him feel as if he’s riding a downbound train. It’s telling listeners that things are going downhill for him.
17. “Dixie Flyer” By Randy Newman
American singer-songwriter Randy Newman is no stranger to folk songs. Most of which he transmutes into a country-rock aesthetic. In addition, his gravelly voice and lyrical content are the perfect fit for singing about the influence of trains on American history and culture. “Dixie Flyer” is one such song.
The Dixie Flyer was a real transportation line with routes all over the country. The song tells the story of the narrator, who is the child of a captain in the army. Duty takes him away from them, leaving his family on their own.
Knowing no one in LA, he and his mother, board the Dixie Flyer to New Orleans, where she grew up. The singer calls it “the land of dreams.”
18. “Shut Up Train” By Little Big Town
In 2010, country group Little Big Town released their album The Reason Why. It includes the single “Shut Up Train.” It’s a slower acoustic ballad that, even though sentimental, still fits with their typical country attitude.
The song portrays a heartbroken woman who’s trying to sleep but keeps being jolted awake by the sounds of the train. She hates how the sound of the breaks and the long whistle remind her of how she feels.
Her interrupted night is a symbol of the unrest she feels after her love interest breaks things off, leaving her confused and lonely. The train only reminds her of the pain and she wishes for it to “shut up.”
19. “Downtown Train” By Rod Stewart
The 1985 single “Downtown Train” was Tom Waits’ song from his album Rain Dogs. But it didn’t see chart success until Rod Stewart’s version in 1989. It climbed the rock and adult contemporary lists, peaking at #3, and became popular in the UK and Canadian markets.
The singer tells of the trains leaving the city each night, holding Brooklyn girls who are trying their luck in the world. He sees the girl who he’s fallen in love with on the downtown train.
It seems like he’s always around when she disembarks from her train. The lines, “I know your window, and I know it’s late, I know your stairs and your doorway,” are a little cringy though. These tell us he has followed her home at some point. But it’s either she’s out of his league, or he’s too shy to approach her.
20. “The City Of New Orleans” By Arlo Guthrie
Like “Downtown Train,” “The City of New Orleans” became popular when it was covered by another singer. Steve Goodman wrote and first recorded this song for his self-titled 1971 album. But Arlo Guthrie made it a hit in 1972 when he included it in Hobo’s Lullaby.
“City of New Orleans” is from the perspective of the train as it travels throughout the country. It observes the kinds of people it encounters. They are mostly hard-working or impoverished folks, all with their own stories to share.
But their faces fade away as the train continues along its route. In fact, the train considers the people and the towns as a bad dream. But life continues as the train moves forward.
21. “Rock Island Line” By Johnny Cash
Yes, Johnny Cash makes the list again for a third train song. In 1966, he released an album of folk songs and pseudo-comedic ditties. Many of them centered around steam engines, one of which is the “Rock Island Line.”
The song centers around a train that transports livestock – or does it? Turns out the conductor is smuggling pig iron and not the animals he claims to the toll booth operator.
The rest of the verses sing praises for the line for its accommodations. It encourages listeners to purchase a ticket and experience the Rock Island Line for themselves.
22. “On The Atchison, Topeka, And The Santa Fe” By Johnny Mercer Ft. The Pied Pipers
In the song, the singer tells us how to pinpoint if engine number 49 is arriving. Its whistle has a certain sound that only it possesses. The train is coming around the bend, with smoke rising to signal its arrival.
According to Mercer, he was on a train when he spotted another train bearing “Atchison, Tokepa and Santa Fe.” He recognized the catchy rhythmic pattern it created and wrote the song. It became popular when Judy Garland sang it in the 1946 film The Harvey Girls.
23. “Long Black Train” By Josh Turner
To end our list, we have the country song “Long Black Train” from John Turner‘s debut album. A steady country beat tinged with bluegrass banjo adorns the chorus of this tune. Fiddle and guitar solos provide choppy percussive effects that mimic the sounds of a train.
Turner’s solemn bass voice sings a religious theme that’s full of metaphors. The “long black train” in question symbolizes temptation. The train is “coming down the line” and feeds off the souls of people who give in.
The singer implores the listeners to turn away from this train and seek God. There, they will find redemption and strength to burn “your ticket for that long black train.”
Summing Up Our List Of Train Songs
These days, trains are still much a part of the lives of regular commuters. And we don’t see any reason why this iron monster will be obsolete in the years to come.
Just like the songs above. They will forever immortalize trains as physical objects or as metaphors for something else.
But what we know is that these songs are entertaining to listen to. They enable us to appreciate trains for what they are or for what they stand for in our lives. So add them to your playlist and give them a listen while riding a train going somewhere.