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To get to Hogwarts, the students had to:

  • Travel many hours by regular (seemingly non-magical, and fairly slow) train

  • Then get into magical conveyances in Hogsmeade.

The latter makes sense - you can't apparate in Hogwarts.

But WHY oh WHY did they need a regular train?

Why not:

  • A magic school bus (like Knight one) to Hogsmeade

  • A magic flying dis-illusioned train

  • A bunch of portkeys (heck, they used them to transport the wizards to Quidditch cup in 1994, and IIRC there were a LOT more attendees than students at Hogwarts)!

  • And, at worst, for a couple of Muggle-born students who for some reason can't get to any of the above, arrange something much smaller than a train.

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1  
It's surely far more interesting and exciting to get the train? Much better than a rickety old bus? (Just think how big that bus would have been?) –  AlasdairCM Feb 3 '12 at 11:40
    
Based on the fact that it can make a trip in a single "BANG", and therefore transport students in batches - not very big. –  DVK Feb 3 '12 at 12:25
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Magicking a train to fly invisibly would be a violation of the laws about Misuse of Muggle Artifacts. They couldn't even claim the loophole Mr. Weasley used, in that they obviously intended the invisible flying train to be used. Also, they'd have to watch out for low-flying planes. –  Jeff Feb 3 '12 at 14:54
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Why do you think it was a regular train? Hogwarts' location is hidden. It should be hard to get to it by ordinary means. –  J.F. Sebastian Feb 3 '12 at 14:58
    
@Jeff - um... they are the Ministry. They could change their own rules to accommodate the train. personally, I'd expect making a flying train hidden from Muggles is a wee bit easier than a regular surface one. –  DVK Feb 3 '12 at 15:13

3 Answers 3

I think the only possible answer is the Muggle-borns.

Obviously, the wizarding world has to stay secret from Muggles. But they also must recruit untrained wizards from the Muggle families that birthed them.

Say you're a parent. Your child has always seemed...odd. Different somehow. Special. Interesting things happen around them - often unexplainable, but you rationalize it.

Then they turn 11, and an OWL arrives carrying a parchment letter, sealed with wax, that shatters your world (it could also come by post, of course, which wouldn't change things much). The letter to your child says that magic is real, and your child is a wizard. Your plans for their education go out the window - they have this potential that they must develop.

Most Muggles have never considered magic even potentially real, not since they were children. The thought that there may actually be witches and wizards will frighten you, at some level.

You journey, possibly aided by a mysterious witch or wizard - one of your child's new teachers, to a place you had never imagined could be in London - Diagon Alley. There you see obvious magic, you see potion ingredients that may sicken you, you see, smell, and hear bizarre things.

Perhaps you are calmed and reassured by the teacher. Perhaps Diagon Alley helps you come to terms with things. Perhaps, after all of this, you are actually looking forward to seeing your child grow into a wizard or witch.

Then the Knight Bus shows up, BANG!ing around, careening to and fro with no apparent regard for anyone's safety.

Or maybe a teacher shows up out of nowhere, and makes your child vanish before your eyes.

Or perhaps there's a portkey that they use, and you see your child dragged away by an old boot.

Or they could use a train. A bit old fashioned, it's steam-driven, but you take your child to a perfectly normal train station, enter Platform 9 3/4, and see them board a train that chugs away.

Which way will scare a Muggle parent least?

Also consider the psychological effect on the new Muggle-born student: They leave their parent in a fairly normal way, and their true introduction to the wizarding world is slow - they meet their fellow students, see some minor magics performed. They see interesting and magical treats on the cart. They interact with older students, and the people they'll be spending the next several months living with.

Then, a few hours later, as the sun drops towards the horizon, they get their first view of Hogwarts - a mighty castle, thrusting tall into the darkening sky. Every window blazes with light, and you are awed.

By this point, you are not just ready to learn magic, you are EAGER. Ask any teacher, they'll tell you: the best students are those who are motivated to learn.

TL;DR: It makes the separation easier for Muggle parents and eases the transition of Muggle-borns into the Wizarding world. It also helps drive the students to want to learn, making the teacher's jobs that much easier.

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The logic seems pretty sound - +1. I'll wait around a bit for some fairy godmother to drop a canon quote or Word of God on my lap before accepting... –  DVK Feb 3 '12 at 15:12
    
The only thing what can possibly added is that the train can not be considered "non-magical" at all. It travels through inhabited area at least in and around London, most likely on existing tracks, without been detected by muggles. It can very likely pass through solid matter and remain invisible. –  vsz Feb 3 '12 at 17:20
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@vsz: Thing is, it isn't invisible - Harry and Ron could follow it from above easily in book 2. –  Jeff Jan 12 '13 at 18:10
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@Jeff: then how can it avoid being detected by muggles? The railroad system is not something where you can just run a train out of schedule with no questions asked, especially a steam locomotive in the last decade of the 20th century without being seen. It's either a plot hole, or only wizards can see it. –  vsz Jan 13 '13 at 16:04
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@Jeff well whatever you wish to call it, "invisible" or "undetectable" or "unacknowledgable", they still accomplish the same thing: keeping muggles from interacting or reacting to its presence –  jono Jan 27 '13 at 21:54

According to the article, "Hogwarts Express" on Pottermore (Or, "Potterless" :-), for a long time parents were responsible for transportation to and from the school. Of course apparating and flue powder were out of the question in order to get directly into the school (because of protective security measures), but other than that there were an assortment of forms of transportation used.

Some rode broomsticks (a difficult feat when carrying trunks and pets); others commandeered enchanted carts and, later, carriages; some attempted to Apparate (often with disastrous effects, as the castle and grounds have always been protected with Anti-Apparition Charms), others rode a variety of magical creatures.

This posed a problem in drawing the attention of Muggles when witches were seen on brooms and, or in flying carriages and the like (pre- "International Secrecy Act" and also pre-"Misuse of Muggle Artifacts" law). The article does not address how transportation was planned out for Muggle-borns at this time (or at any other time really).

Despite Muggle sightings of vast numbers of airborne wizards travelling northwards, it remained the responsibility of parents to convey their children to school, right up until the imposition of the International Statute of Secrecy in 1692. At this point, it became a matter of urgency to find some more discreet method of transporting hundreds of wizarding children from all over Britain to their secret school in the Highlands of Scotland.

Rowling goes on to say that portkeys were arranged and tried but many children got "portkey sick" and the first few days of school were spent in the infirmary for many students. Additionally, Portkeys posed problems because the keys were hard to find and many kids would miss them.

While admitting that Portkeys were not an ideal solution to the problem of school transportation, the Ministry of Magic failed to find an acceptable alternative. A return to the unregulated travel of the past was impossible, and yet a more secure route into the school (for instance, permitting a fireplace that might be officially entered by Floo powder) was strongly resisted by successive Headmasters, who did not wish the security of the castle to be breached.

Eventually the train was established - Muggles were even used in its building and then their memories of the years spent building it, erased.

Where exactly the Hogwarts Express came from has never been conclusively proven, although it is a fact that there are secret records at the Ministry of Magic detailing a mass operation involving one hundred and sixty-seven Memory Charms and the largest ever mass Concealment Charm performed in Britain.

This solution was highly controversial, but proved to solve the problem and has been maintained ever since.

Many pure-blood families were outraged at the idea of their children using Muggle transport, which they claimed was unsafe, insanitary and demeaning; however, as the Ministry decreed that students either rode the train or did not attend school, the objections were swiftly silenced.

She does not discuss why some form of a "knight bus" like apparatus or magic flying train was not used, however, I'd bet that despite the long hours, its a great deal more comfortable than long hours on a broom and perhaps no one minds that part. :-)

A rare event like the World Quiddich cup that will bring in revenue from tourists is likely to be seen as a one-time and worthwhile imposition on the ministry, whereas repeated yearly requirements would seem more like drudgery. I do remember getting the feeling that it was quite a challenge getting all the keys arranged - lots of "magical red tape" so to speak. If the Ministry was going to all that trouble back in the day for Hogwarts only to have a large percentage of the kids miss their times, I'd bet they didn't care if the solution was quick and easy for the students, so long as it was quicker and easier for ministry officials.

The quotes here come from snippets of the article by Rowling herself on Pottermore titled, "Hogwart's Express."

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@DVK Bibidibobidiboo! –  balanced mama Oct 26 '13 at 16:21
    
According to Wikipedia, trains were not used to transport people until the 1800s. With the International Statute of Secrecy being established in 1692, this means the magical world was "experimenting" with transportation methods for at least 150 years. I know the wizarding world moves slowly, but come on. –  trysis Jun 22 at 17:36
    
This isn't counting the Roman Empire having a proto-train 2600 years ago, of course. –  trysis Jun 22 at 17:37

Based on some of the events in the first book, I assumed when reading the books and watching the movies that the reason was firstly because of tradition. Especially when you consider the first years had to travel over to the castle by boats. Surely there was a better means than a boat. Then secondly - I was stationed in Europe for several years and found that the most common means of travel in Europe and England is by train. Since the magical world wanted to remain hidden from the muggle world it would make sense then to just go by a secret train that the muggles couldn't see. When I consider these two points, the train seems to make sense.

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