Drama aside, 'The Commuter' offers up accurate railroading — mostly

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NEW YORK CITY — The best ticket to cure cabin fever could be a train ride from a nearby station or it may be the rated PG-13 movie “The Commuter.” The Commuter stars Liam Neeson as — a rail commuter — ostensibly on NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Hudson Line, with a few outside scenes to establish this. Be aware that technical expertise has caught up with this dramatic tale. Also in the cast are Vera Farmiga, Elizabeth McGovern, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks, and Sam Neill.

In brief, the movie is about a man who appears to be helpless in a situation over his head. A suburbanite with a mortgage and a family, Neeson’s character travels to work for his usual commute in the morning, and by the time he is ready for his return trip, his world has changed dramatically. For more than an hour, there are train scenes: in, under, and around this rather unique ride home.

Underbody cables and crawl spaces abound in one scene, along with truck details, maybe a little closer than you would want to see them. Even a floor latch plays a key role in that particular part of the movie. For the novice railfan, it was a lesson in the mechanics of passenger car below the floor systems.

Directed by Jaime Collet-Serra, a Spaniard who went to college in the U.S., he saw the movie had two direct challenges: How can it be made interesting with the background changing a little at a time; And dealing with the logistics of a story aboard a moving train? Collet-Serra says the light and background of the Hudson Line fascinated him. While shooting on moving train would have have been tempting, it was far easier and cost effective to use a studio set. The key to the movie? The train interior came from, of all places, a scrapyard near Cleveland, Ohio.

The seats, lights, and other interior fittings in the inside scenes came from scrapped Metro-North commuter cars. The 30-ton set, at Pinewood Studios near London, had solid sides in and out, moved up and down, and used hydraulics to move the passenger cars back and forth, on wheels and rails.

“It’s the most technical set I’ve ever built, because of all the different facets of lighting and camera movement and camera rig that had to be built,” says Richard Bridgland, the movie’s production designer.

Does it seem real? The train crew was dressed appropriately enough for the warm day that the train scenes took place on. The vestibules seemed realistic. The crews, dressed in a summer outfit of dark slacks, white shirt, and appropriate caps, communicated on radio devices much like the ones used on Metro-North. The conductor and assistant conductor were convincing down to the accents. The cast of train riders seemed as though they spent their workdays riding to their New York City jobs every day. The couplers used in one scene were Janneys. Anyone who rode on M1s will recognize the dark red and blue seats with 3-2 seating, which made the set creditable. The interior walls were painted a little darker than their Metro-North counterparts, and the glow of the lights were not as bright in the movie cars as their real life counterparts. Some outdoor footage was shot in the United Kingdom, and there are detectable differences from North American practice, inside and outside.

What were the differences? The train itself seemed to be diesel rail cars, looking more like a marriage between an RDC and a SEPTA Silverliner 4 sans Faively pantographs; Metro-North only operates electric multiple-unit cars and dual-power diesel and electric push-pulls. The movie train stops at 59th Street, 86th Street, and 110th Street in the tunnel on its way between Grand Central and 125th Street — they are not real stations. The train also has five-digit car numbers, not a Metro-North practice, along with stainless steel fluting: Metro-North only uses smooth sided cars at this time.

With European money financing the movie, aimed at a world audience, the differences will not be noted by a vast majority of movie-goers.

The Commuter, PG-13, premieres Jan. 12 in theaters nationwide and runs for 1 hour, 44 minutes.

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