Which is the sexiest train? (*in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Starlight Express)

Not a clue what’s going on here, to be honest. Image: Getty.

While the rest of the world indulged in the fur-ore over the newly released CATS trailer, we were turning our attention to that other 1980s Andrew Lloyd-Webber hit musical, Starlight Express. Because, CityMetric readers, what could be sexier than human railway carriages on rollerskates?

Move aside, felines: it’s time to meet the stage’s steamiest trains. Here they are, in official and objective order of sexiness.

Electra

That contour! The mohawk! Train of the future Electra is canonically bisexual and genderfluid, with their key song AC/DC (listen, this show ain’t subtle) described by Andrew Lloyd-Webber as “transgender electro-pop”. So much in the worlds of trains and musical theatre shakes out down stereotypical gendered tracks, and Electra is here to stir Brendan O’Neill into a thousand columns about “woke politics” and the Times to run headlines suggesting they’re erasing… someone. Mostly Electra is exuding sex, power, magnetism and literal sparks.

Volta

She never smiles, seems aloof and comes across as arrogant. Is she a female politician running for office as reported by the Daily Mail? No, she’s Volta, everyone’s favourite freezer truck in Starlight Express. Switching genders between the numerous productions that have rolled across international stages since the show began in 1984, Volta is about as cool and sexy as it gets. We stan a goth ice queen.

Killerwatt

Well, don't you wanna know how he keeps startin' fires? It’s his desire, it’s his desire.

Grace Jones meets Vanilla Ice, but make it fashion: Killerwatt serves the best of all the lewks. He does not race, but that’s because he’s saving his high NRG for close protection. The bodyguard that makes Richard Madden look like the sweet boy of average height that he really is, Killerwatt will blow your circuits.

Dustin

Always willing to put himself forward to help his friends but shy of assuming power, Dustin is the ideal train to lead us through never-ending Brexit chaos. About as far down the line from toxic masculinity as its possible for a freight train to get, and with a body-positive narrative about self-belief and acceptance, Dustin is the train you’d take home to meet your parents. And you know that he’d do his best to get you there on time. 12/10 a very good boy.

Bobo

This hon hon hon honey is stuck with a clownish name, but has dark secrets under that striped Gallic exterior. Bobo is sometimes Coco, indulging his wilder dragged up side. And that nationalist fervour got channeled into the Coco Chanel-inspired token Female Engine in one production – inspired by a Nazi agent, sporting a tricolore skirt.

As a guy, his costume is all about his buffer, and as a gal, she’s got underwater Eurostar dreams. The real tea is that she doesn’t care what you think of her, and there’s nothing hotter than that.

Belle

Belle the Bar Car is a recent addition to the Starlight rolling stock. In her high-camp 1970s lampshade dress and sporting a ready supply of cocktails, Belle recalls the nostalgic glamour of railway travel before the onset of alcohol bans and talking lavatories. And with trendsetter Diane Abbott making onboard mojitos the hottest railway accessory of 2019, the stylish Bar Car easily makes our top-10 list of the sexiest trains.


Rusty & Pearl

Rusty and Pearl aren’t worth separate entries, they exist purely for basics new to sexy trains. Your mum loves them because they’re kind, dreamy, gentle and pretty – Rusty and Pearl are baby’s first crush. The Danny and Sandy, Dave and SamCam, Disney Princess and Little Mark Owen of Starlight, they teach you how to love but soon leave you craving more investment in your infrastructure and more capacity on your routes.

Joule

If ever there was a train that was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, it’s Joules. A dynamite truck with an explosive temper, she’s like a parliamentary scandal that can’t be contained and is just waiting to blow up. Sporting a Madonna-in-Gaultier style costume with “Danger” emblazoned across her chest, she’s an alluring BDSM fireball that will only hurt you in the end. She’s like voting Lib-Dem in 2010 but with an actual personality, and this time you might even enjoy the ride.

Wrench

Wrench is never out of uniform, ready for roleplay and the hot butch of your dreams. Don’t mistake her for a man, even when she’s played by one. Her aggression and masculinity is of the female variety. She does not appreciate you either misgendering her or assuming she does not respect and adore her boss Electra, however they are presenting. Wrench can repair you, or she can break you, but she is not to be crossed.

Purse

Purse, as his name suggests, is the accountant of the crew – second in command to Electra, he’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Starlight stage. Wearing an armoured metallic vest and oozing posh-boy charm, he’d be the first train to cut the branch lines and close local stations come Budget day. Nevertheless, he makes the list. A darling of the Mumsnet brigade, Purse would also be the shameful secret crush of many a progressive millennial.

Dishonourable Mention: Brexit

That’s right, the 2018 German production of Starlight reintroduced the British national train to the show as none other than hopeless purple and gold Faragian doom-monger Brexit. There is nothing less sexy than a nation careering out of control like a runaway train hell-bent on crashing engine-first into disaster. But this German schadenfreude deserves our acknowledgment. If by any chance this train stops before hitting Calamityville, we want off. 

Penny Andrews tweets as @pennyb. Rebecca Harrison as @beccaeharrison.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.