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TELEVISION REVIEW

Riding the rails with a true buff

November 11, 2008|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Matt Bown, a train conductor in central Maine, has a dream: to ride the biggest, fastest, most awesome locomotives in America. At least that's what he tells us in the introduction to "Extreme Trains," an eight-part look at, well, trains, that premieres on History tonight at 10.

For those who share Bown's obsession, and there are many, "Extreme Trains" is a must-see. Never before has the iron horse been treated to so much naked adoration, so many flattering camera angles, such a throbbing soundtrack. Each episode focuses on a particular type of train, including coal, freight and high-speed, and then follows each locomotive from one end of its line to another with stopovers in local history, worker interviews, on-line dangers and, of course, famous wrecks.

In the premiere episode, Bown rides through the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania with a cargo of coal en route to the power plant. Along the way, we learn a bit about how coal is mined, a lot about how it is loaded, the history of the Johnstown Flood, how difficult it is to shoot the famous Horseshoe Curve and how the Nazis planned to blow it up during World War II.

In terms of scenery, it's hard to beat the Allegheny Mountains, even in winter when it seems this leg of Bown's journey was shot. And even the most devout non-train-aficionado must concede the general "awesomeness" of a coal train going full bore through a hairpin turn. Likewise Bown's enthusiasm for his subject is a thing of beauty, although someone might want to help him come up with synonyms for "awesome" and "amazing."

Still, rocketing along these rails, information flies by with relentless speed and often only the scantiest organization. Not surprisingly, the producers have reached for the overly familiar template of hazardous-occupation reality shows -- a migraine-inducing soundtrack, a lot of in-your-face shots of the host and, of course, the insistence of almost constant danger: Will this train full of coal/iPods make it up the mountains, over deserts and through the tunnels to its destination intact? (Answer: Yes.)

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Extreme Trains'

Where: History

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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