Written by: Jonathan Owen
Long ago, there was a short branch line that ran from a busy main line station to a little fishing village on the South Coast of England. The only motive power it ever saw was an old GWR Pannier Tank Engine, usually with either two coaches or a few wagons. Being steeply graded and only 4½ miles long, the railway never generated much traffic aside from fish from the village & holiday makers wishing to visit the seaside. Even so, life was easy for the then-young Driver & Fireman as nothing too extravagant ever seemed to happen during the daily grind. Little did they know that all that was to change…
In the 1950’s, the line started to struggle. The fishing trade was slowly dying out & passengers were at an all-time low. Both rolling stock & the Pannier Tank became poorly maintained, with rust building up day-after-day. But moral never hit rock-bottom, as the crew always came to the Engine Shed each morning with smiles on their faces, ready to fire up their faithful old engine. But that evening, a large catch of fish had arrived via boat in the fishing village & the railway was obliged to take it to the mainline for a late night Stopping Goods. As the tank engine headed down the branch line, the Driver & Fireman were anxious about getting the goods over the summit & to the station on time…
When they arrived at the end of the line, all the fish was loaded into a long train. “Blimey,” exclaimed the Fireman, wrinkling his eyes at the smell “We’ll never get all that up the hill!” “Rubbish” said the Driver, “This engine’s done us proud for many a year. She’ll get us there, I’m sure of it.” The Fireman was still unsure, but with a sigh they coupled to the long line of trucks. A few minutes later, they heard a Guard’s Whistle & started away. The wagons creaked & groaned as they sprung into motion, but they train was soon running nicely as the journey began.
Soon, the train began to climb the gradient. It was fierce, 1-in-60 at best from the village and the weather wasn’t helping matters either. A thick fog had rolled in from the ocean, meaning the crew could barely see any signals. The only light came from the firebox & that of the lamps on the buffer beam of their engine. The wheels soon began to slip and the whole train nearly came to a standstill. “Give it some more welly!” said the Fireman and the Driver responded. Noise & smoke erupted from their engine, but it was still hard going. After what seemed like an eternity, the wheels began to grip the rails again. “OK” called the Driver, “I’m easing her off now.” But that was easier said than done…
Although the downward gradient towards the main line station was only 1-in-100, the heavy wagons began to push the train down the hill. “Apply the brakes!” shouted the Fireman. The Driver set them to full, but the old engine’s brakes were worn after many years of service. Just as the Driver thought they were gaining control, he leaned out the cab & began to make out their surroundings through the fog – they were approaching the station at an alarming speed! There was nothing else they could do. The Driver & Fireman leapt out of the cab as the engine hit the buffers with a mighty crash!
The morning sunlight showed to all the aftermath. The Pannier Tank was beyond repair, its wagons all to pieces. The mess was cleared up later that day, but the smell of fish hung in the air for a long time afterwards. Both Driver & Fireman hadn’t broken any bones & were back at work a few days later. They were very sad to see their old engine taken away to a Scrapyard but knew they had to carry on with their usual regime with another engine, even if the funeral bell was about to sound for the line.
The branch line was faced with closure a year later, but not before a Diesel Multiple Unit was trialled with what little passengers were left. The old Driver & Fireman were still at work, only the Driver now drove the Unit whilst the Fireman took up the role of the Guard. They were quite content together, but whenever thick fog covered the line they were always left with an unsettling feeling. However, nothing ever topped the conditions of that fateful night & they always regained their confidence.
One night they left the station on an empty-stock working, bound for the village with the last train of the day. It was quiet that night, the only sound being the familiar rumbling of their DMU. With clear signals, they headed down the branch line. The Guard even joined the Driver in the cab to share a cup of hot cocoa as they went along. But as they neared the summit of the line, they suddenly hit a thick patch of fog. It took them by surprised & the Driver strained his eyes to see ahead. “That’s odd…” said the Guard. He sniffed… “Can you smell… fish?” Then, it happened.
“Was that… a whistle I just heard?” said the Guard. “And wheel-slipping?” added the Driver. They were confused – the rules of Single Line Working naturally meant that no other trains could be coming in the other direction. But then… “A light!” cried the Driver. The Guard looked through the cab windows and was alarmed. There was a light and the sound of a train rushing down the hill at a tremendous speed! The Driver threw the DMU into reverse & the train sped down the hill, the light & noise chasing them and getting brighter & louder! Just as they crossed the junction, with a shrill whistle the light absorbed the cab. White with fear, the Guard seized the brake & just managed to stop the train in the platform.
The Station Master was confused. “What are you doing back here so soon?” he called as he walked up the platform. The Guard looked at him, then looked towards the junction. The light had gone…. There was not a sound to be heard… He turned to the Driver. He was just as confused, but they explained to their colleague what they thought they had seen. “Hmm…” pondered the Station Master, “I think you two should call it a night.” The two men went home together, both still wondering about what they had seen.
As did many, the branch line eventually closed. The former-Fireman soon found work acting as a Guard on the main line, but the Driver stuck to his roots finding work as a Traffic Warden in the town. The rails were pulled up & a footpath eventually took their place. But even though the railway was gone, on foggy nights people walking along the path will admit that strange things do happen. They too see a bright light heading towards the station and the sound of a steam engine struggling up the hill, more than likely trying to get is heavy train from the fishing village to the end of the line… ■