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Why The Train From Back To The Future Means More Than You Think

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) didn't need roads where they went in Back to the Future II — but they could have done with some extra train tracks in the trilogy's grand finale.

We already have the entire Back to the Future timeline explained, so suffice it to say the third movie opens with our time traveling heroes stuck in the Wild West in 1885. With no gasoline to power the modified DeLorean to that 88-mile-per-hour sweet spot, they adapt to their environment. The plan is to use a steam train to push the car along until it reaches the right speed — or until it falls off the yet-to-be-completed railroad tracks. Whichever comes first.

Back to the Future III features many familiar faces from the previous movies as well as some Hollywood royalty (Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen) and a few titans of the music industry (look out for cameos by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Flea and blues rock band ZZ Top.) But there's another major presence that you may have seen in other movies, without even realizing it. Here's why the train from Back to the Future means more than you think.

The Back to the Future train is a Hollywood legend

Known as Locomotive 131 in Back to the Future III, the steam train's real name is Sierra No. 3 Steam Locomotive, a.k.a. the Movie Star Locomotive, and it has the kind of movie resume that would make some human actors jealous.

The Sierra No. 3 first caught the eye of producers making Westerns, and its movie career dates back to 1919. Its most famous appearances include 1929's The Virginian and 1952's High Noon, both starring Gary Cooper; 1965's The Great Race with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Natalie Wood; and 1992's Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood alongside Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris. It's also appeared on numerous TV shows, including The Lone Ranger, Lassie, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie.

When it's not on Hollywood duty, Sierra No. 3 resides in Railtown 1897, a State Historic Park in Jamestown, California that's also home to the less famous Baldwin No. 28, another train that's appeared in movies. Between April and October (in non-pandemic times) visitors can ride the historic trains along the "Movie Railroad," which has also been used on screen. Back to the Future III fans can visit a prop from the movie while they're there: the red caboose Marty and Doc jump onto when chasing the train on horseback.

Trains appeared earlier in the Back to the Future trilogy

The time-traveling trilogy packs in so much back and forth plot-wise that there are probably small details in the Back to the Future movies you missed. One of them, from Back to the Future II, includes a hint at a major scene in the third movie.

In the second film, Doc wears a shirt printed with a design that shows two people on horseback chasing after a steam train. This foreshadows his and Marty's attempt to catch up to Locomotive 131. Even more meta, when they finally do board the train and hold up the driver, Doc is wearing the shirt around his face as a makeshift train-stealing mask.

The train makes a final appearance in the last scene of the movie, at which point it's had some updates. In case you were wondering what Doc, Clara (Mary Steenburgen) and their kids got up to in between Marty's escape from the Wild West and their reemergence in 1985, Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale has created a comic to fill in some of the blanks.

Co-written with John Barber and with art by Megan Levens, it's titled Tales from the Time Train. Gale told the Hollywood Reporter that he fought to have the comics focus on Doc's adventures in the future, which he visits before coming back to see Marty. For those who've always wanted Doc Brown's entire Back to the Future timeline explained, here's your answer.