Railway Lights

Dwain Pipe

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#1
Quite recently I was chatting to a chap who was a train driver back in the 70’s and 80’s. Rather than passenger trains, he predominantly drove freight trains and specifically coal trains. His job was to collect coal from pits in the North of England and take it down to ports in the South of England where it would be taken across to mainland Europe. He usually travelled through the night, despatch the coal in the early morning and then head back north. Occasionally he’d be driving the train alone but mostly there’d be 2 drivers sharing the workload. Also, they’d be expected to take the journey using non passenger tracks so not to disrupt any passenger trains using the main lines. This would take them on some quite remote and underused routes.

One evening him and another driver we’re heading south with their load on a line somewhere around Cambridgeshire. There were woods either side of the track and no station or sidings for miles but it was a route they’d travelled on many times. In the distance they saw a signal set at ‘stop’ so began to slow the train down. The signal didn’t change as they approached so they came to a complete halt. After waiting for 10 minutes or so the signal still hadn’t changed so his mate hopped out the cab to use the signal phone to call through to the main signal control box to ask if there were any issues. After a few minutes he returned saying the phone was completely dead. Now they were a little concerned as they’d no option but to wait which could significantly delay them. They were chatting for a while, when they both noticed a bright light in the trees at the side of the track. Initially they thought it was someone with a torch, maybe a poacher, however they quickly noticed that it was actually a ball of light about the same size as a tennis ball. The light came out of the trees and up to the side window of the engine (interestingly, though it was bright it didn’t light up their carriage at all) it stayed there for a few moments then moved around to the front, slowly went past the front windscreen and then continued into the trees on the opposite side before disappearing from view! Maybe coincidentally or maybe not, the signal then changed to allow them to pass through.

Unlike many of these stories where the protagonists don’t speak about the occurrence again, these two guys would talk about it every time they saw each other, right up until his mates death in 2011. He took his train down that route many more times but didn’t have any other similar experiences again.
 

escargot

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#3
I clicked 'like' before reading a word. Railway freakiness is my favourite! Thank you for this brilliant story.

Where did this happen, I wonder? Train drivers do detailed route learning so theses ones would know exactly where they'd seen this.

Drivers are very highly trained in the use of signals. There is a procedure for every possible eventuality and a driver is in HUGE trouble if they disobey a 'Stop' sign. It is in fact a specific offence called 'SPAD' or 'Signal Passed At Danger' and usually incurs the sack.

So there'd be no inching forward and looking how the land lies, as when a motorist suspects the temporary traffic lights of being stuck. It's red, you stop until you're told to go. If the phone is dead you're there until your orders arrive or the signal changes.

Edit - this is why Dickens' story of The Signalman is so great; he uses what was then the latest technology to haunt the poor railwayman.
 

Dwain Pipe

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#4
Do you have an approximate year and season for this?

Moved to General Forteana as not a first-person account.
I’m afraid not Yithian. I’d taken my Dad to a retirement doo for a guy who’d recently retired from the railway and this bloke was a friend of a friend of my Dads. It could have occurred any time between the mid 70’s to early 90’s at a guess?
 

blessmycottonsocks

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#5
Had the light been described as nearer the size of say a marble, I would have said it was a possible glow-worm/firefly sighting, especially given its wandering nature. The size of a tennis ball rules that out though.

Ps. Thanks to Escargot for the heads-up on The Signalman - have just downloaded it from Project Gutenberg for a late-night read tonight!
 

Yithian

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#6
Had the light been described as nearer the size of say a marble, I would have said it was a possible glow-worm/firefly sighting, especially given its wandering nature. The size of a tennis ball rules that out though.

Ps. Thanks to Escargot for the heads-up on The Signalman - have just downloaded it from Project Gutenberg for a late-night read tonight!
Fantastic story.

There is also a very atmospheric BBC television adaptation that used to be aired around Christmas. Denholm Elliot plays the eponymous rôle.

Edit (updated to higher definition):

 
Last edited:

Dwain Pipe

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#7
I clicked 'like' before reading a word. Railway freakiness is my favourite! Thank you for this brilliant story.

Where did this happen, I wonder? Train drivers do detailed route learning so theses ones would know exactly where they'd seen this.

Drivers are very highly trained in the use of signals. There is a procedure for every possible eventuality and a driver is in HUGE trouble if they disobey a 'Stop' sign. It is in fact a specific offence called 'SPAD' or 'Signal Passed At Danger' and usually incurs the sack.

So there'd be no inching forward and looking how the land lies, as when a motorist suspects the temporary traffic lights of being stuck. It's red, you stop until you're told to go. If the phone is dead you're there until your orders arrive or the signal changes.

Edit - this is why Dickens' story of The Signalman is so great; he uses what was then the latest technology to haunt the poor railwayman.
Escargot, all he said was that it was somewhere in Cambridgeshire but didn’t go into any specific detail. I don’t pretend to know much about the railways, but the protocol for red signals sounds extremely sensible!

Glad you enjoyed the story!
 

escargot

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#8
Ps. Thanks to Escargot for the heads-up on The Signalman - have just downloaded it from Project Gutenberg for a late-night read tonight
Yith has provided a link to the spectacularly good TV version, which is totally faithful to the text.

Read the story first!
There's a gesture in it that's a big part of the story. When I first read it I put the book down and practiced it. The TV version has it spot-on!
So if you read the story first you can do the gesture too. The author would have loved that!
 

blessmycottonsocks

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#9
Yith has provided a link to the spectacularly good TV version, which is totally faithful to the text.

Read the story first!
There's a gesture in it that's a big part of the story. When I first read it I put the book down and practiced it. The TV version has it spot-on!
So if you read the story first you can do the gesture too. The author would have loved that!
Enjoyed it - notably the overall lugubrious setting, the otherworldly description of the signalman himself and, of course, the twist. I won't say any more so as not to spoil the enjoyment of other first-time readers. There are several other Dickensian ghost short stories on Gutenberg, which I shall check out
 

eburacum

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#10
Drivers are very highly trained in the use of signals. There is a procedure for every possible eventuality and a driver is in HUGE trouble if they disobey a 'Stop' sign. It is in fact a specific offence called 'SPAD' or 'Signal Passed At Danger' and usually incurs the sack.
So there'd be no inching forward and looking how the land lies, as when a motorist suspects the temporary traffic lights of being stuck. It's red, you stop until you're told to go. If the phone is dead you're there until your orders arrive or the signal changes.
Not strictly true; certain signals in selected locations are set up so that, if they are defective and the phone doesn't work, you can pass them at caution and proceed until you reach the next signal which will hopefully have a working phone.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Signa...es_a_signal_at_danger_under_his_own_authority
 

eburacum

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#11
This is a nice story, but it does sound a lot like poachers with a very strong lamp.
One loco driver I know saw a very nice occurrence of the Northern Lights from his cab one night- the cabs are more-or-less in darkness, and they can see allsorts from in there.
 

Krepostnoi

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#12
This is a nice story, but it does sound a lot like poachers with a very strong lamp.
One loco driver I know saw a very nice occurrence of the Northern Lights from his cab one night- the cabs are more-or-less in darkness, and they can see allsorts from in there.
I have heard my brother wax positively lyrical on the subject of the spectacle presented by oncoming steam trains encountered in tunnels. (I should probably add that he is a train driver, not a trespasser...)
 

RaM

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#13
One of the best light shows I ever saw was one dark morning in a snow storm,
a snow plow coming the other way with many lights all on, spot lights fog lights
head and side backed up by light bar and beacons, looked like the star ship enterprise
coming at me through the blowing snow.
 

Dwain Pipe

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#14
This is a nice story, but it does sound a lot like poachers with a very strong lamp.
One loco driver I know saw a very nice occurrence of the Northern Lights from his cab one night- the cabs are more-or-less in darkness, and they can see allsorts from in there.
Poachers were my explanation too eburacum. However, aren’t train doors quite high up when you’re stood on the ground rather than a station platform? In which case the poacher would have to be very tall to shine a torch at the window? Unless of course they stood on the steps.
 

hunck

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#15
This is a nice story, but it does sound a lot like poachers with a very strong lamp.
Except that the story says the light came right up to the window of the train. It seems unlikely they wouldn't have noticed a poacher attached to the light.

And it doesn't sound like a very strong lamp - in the story it doesn't light up the train much even when close.
 

Carse

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#16
I’ve got an old long since out of print book about the Glasgow Subway* which has a short chapter about ghosts encountered on the system, including mention of strange mystery lights seen in the tunnels -

“On another occasion two seperate squads were working on the same section of track, though a considerable distance apart. Suddenly a light was spotted between them, and men from both teams immediately went forward to find out what was happening. Despite an intensive search, nothing was ever found.”

*I belong to Glasgow - the human history of the Glasgow Underground by Gordon Casely and Bill Hamilton, Nexus Press 1975
 

Analogue Boy

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#17
Coincidentally, the game Metro Exodus has you in a post apocalyptic wasteland where you’re on an abandoned railway line littered with broken carriages. At night, the line is patrolled by ball lightning entities that kill instantly.
 

Sharon Hill

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#18
There are dozens of stories of ghost lights associated with train tracks in the U.S. They typically involved an unverified story of former rail worker who lost his head. It's an interesting idea that iron rails generate some electromagnetic phenomena. I'm just speculating but it's a thing. In this case, there is no way to verify that the incident occurred as described so it's just a story and not worth a whole lot. None of these stories are ever verified.
 

skinny

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#19
Fantastic story.

There is also a very atmospheric BBC television adaptation that used to be aired around Christmas. Denholm Elliot plays the eponymous rôle.

Edit (updated to higher definition):

That was good. Thanks for the link.
 

RaM

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#20
Cant see how a poacher could shine a light into a cab if by that it means getting the torch right up
to the window, not only are the windows a long way off the ground the tracks tend to be on ballast
that is on a track bed, then a ditch a bit of grass and a fence, surly a experienced crew would notice
someone scrambling though that lot, even with arm at full height the torch would likely be about
half way up the cab and if they climbed on the loco they would surly be noticed.
 

Yithian

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#21
There are dozens of stories of ghost lights associated with train tracks in the U.S. They typically involved an unverified story of former rail worker who lost his head. It's an interesting idea that iron rails generate some electromagnetic phenomena. I'm just speculating but it's a thing. In this case, there is no way to verify that the incident occurred as described so it's just a story and not worth a whole lot. None of these stories are ever verified.
One interesting facet of the train-centred ghost tale is the fact that its advent came so soon after the construction of the railways.

As far as tales of the supernatural had a purpose beyond mere entertainment, they had traditionally served as cautionary 'spiritual' brake on the supposed excesses and presumptions of secularised science, a sobering antidote to materialism and the adaptions of lifestyle and mindset it enabled. These manifestaions almost always came through, or occurred in proximity to, objects and locations of great age and (even) antiquity. Further, these manifestations were almost always conservative in nature: figures and motifs that enforced or reasserted the status quo.

Although today we often coat such stories with the veneer of nostalgia that often accompanies the golden age of steam, the train was in the 1830s and 40s a symbol of ultra-modernity, uniting disparate communities and enabling thitherto unthinkable exchanges of culture and goods.

Perhaps it was the sensationalised reporting of the early fatal accidents or perhaps the fact this technology had violated the natural limits of age-old horsepower (the train moving with mechanical regularity and demanding neither nurture nor rest), but the eeriness of this new mode of travel was mined for fictional gain surprisingly early on.

Personally, I am fascinated by the liminal, and trains, like the rails they rush along, are no respecters of the ancient boundaries of politics, topography or class.

That, to many, was a frightening prospect. Perhaps, as I've written elsewhere, the train was a spectre of the future that unsettled the present.
 
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#22
One interesting facet of the train-centred ghost tale is the fact that its advent came so soon after the construction of the railways...
Maybe railways are simply an extension of the road ghost, which itself reduces to the haunted pathway - which itself reduces down to the basic logic that we see ghosts where we are. Maybe it all boils down to the haunted house, or the haunted pathway.
 

Yithian

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#23
Maybe railways are simply an extension of the road ghost, which itself reduces to the haunted pathway - which itself reduces down to the basic logic that we see ghosts where we are. Maybe it all boils down to the haunted house, or the haunted pathway.
The path was domesticated, the road was his big brother; the railway was the road on steroids.
 

RaM

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#24
Likely nothing to do with it but you do get what they call singing rails, were for some
unknown as far as I know a particular section of rail emits a noise though others nearby
don't, maybe that particular rail as a harmonic frequency that allows it to ring to something
happening many miles away wile other have a different frequency and stay silent.
 

Carse

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#26
The other story I was told many, many times as a very young railwayman was the well known phenomenon of crows placing ballast on the rails. Supposedly crows are the reincarnation of dead permanent way gangers of old, who place the ballast on top of the rail head to show where the sleepers needs packed. In reality I suppose it’s just a clever trick they’ve learned to crush stone for some arcane corvine purpose. Very clever are yer crows, very clever.
 

RaM

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#27
Could be related to some birds picking up shell fish or snails and dropping them from height
onto something hard to brake them open, you can always tell the learners they drop them on the
sand.
 
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#28
I saw a crow once, playing 'catch' with a stick. It would fly straight up with the sick in its beak, drop it, then attempt to catch it on the way down. They just like playing games, a trait that places them in the top ranks of all intelligent animals in my opinion.

And some of that ballast on the rail top might have been teenagers rather than crows. Not that I ever did such a thing at that age...
 

Carse

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#29
I saw a crow once, playing 'catch' with a stick. It would fly straight up with the stick in its beak, drop it, then attempt to catch it on the way down. They just like playing games, a trait that places them in the top ranks of all intelligent animals in my opinion.

And some of that ballast on the rail top might have been teenagers rather than crows. Not that I ever did such a thing at that age...
Crows are very intelligent and I love watching them. As for the ballast, yes kids love putting it on the line too but many instances in the middle of nowhere are down to crows and they’re often seen doing it. The other strange railway/animal phenomenon is the regular removal of detonators from the line by foxes. Supposedly they like the taste of the lead oxide powder that comes off the straps but who knows...
 
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