SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Runaway by Chris Campbell
Here's the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub. Chris Campbell spent most of his working life as a driver. He is now retired and has taken up writing as a hobby
The heavy 12 coach train, packed with families and tourists heading west for the Christmas break, toiled up the gradient through the cutting towards the summit tunnel.
The weather was remarkably good for late December. The sun shined bright in a cloudless sky.
The train normally had only one baggage coach but this had been supplemented with a further baggage coach to handle the vast amounts of luggage and presents that all the passengers seemed to be taking with them.
As the train approached the tunnel entrance the driver gave a long blast on the whistle, then the train plunged into the darkness.
Smoke from the stack blew back over the cab of the locomotive and the driver and fireman were glad that this engine had an enclosed cab which stopped most of the smoke, unlike some of the older engines on the line that were open to the elements.
It was a long tunnel, nearly three miles, which would have been a nightmare with an open cab.
Some minutes later the train emerged from the tunnel, accompanied by another blast on the whistle.
The line now dropped quite sharply through a series of S-bends to eventually level and straighten out after some six miles to run along the shores of the lake.
As the train began to drop downgrade, the speed picked up, with the weight of the carriages pushing it forward, and the driver applied the brakes a couple of notches.
Back in the carriages, most of the passengers were glad to be out of the smelly confines of the tunnel and were admiring the view as the train swept into the first curve.
In the cab the driver was keeping a close eye on the speed and applied another couple of notches to the brakes. Still the train continued to gain speed, but slower this time as the braking began to take effect.
Some of the passengers were by now getting scared, worried at the train’s speed as the scenery outside flashed past the windows.
In the cab, the driver applied more brake and still the train did not slow down, if anything it increased speed a bit.
The driver and fireman exchanged worried glances.
The train conductor, back in the passenger carriages, had by now realised something was not right.
He was a regular conductor on this train and knew both of the footplate crew well enough to know they would not normally be taking the descent at their current speed.
He warned his passengers to hold tight and stay calm. ‘Easier said than done’, he thought. But he had to try.
In coach three was a school choir led by a group of nuns.
The nuns tried to reassure their young charges that everything was fine and that the driver was giving them a fast ride as a Christmas present, all the while under their breath praying they would get off the train in one piece.
Back in the drivers cab, the speed was still increasing and the wheels were now squealing as the train thundered into the bends.
The driver threw his weight against the brake lever, trying to push it to its stops.
The fireman also lent his weight to the lever and very slowly it began to move towards the full brake position.
It was not enough and still the train did not slow down.
Both driver and fireman spoke a silent prayer that they would be able to stop the train and it would remain on the rails through the curves.
The speed had by now reached a critical level and the engine crew could feel the carriages sway on the bends, first one way and then the other.
The driver knew the train would only take so much of this before the swaying upset the delicate balance of the wheels on the track and threw the carriages off the rails.
If this happened the locomotive would surely follow and many people would lose their lives.
They were nearly four miles into the descent by now and the train had increased speed so much that the speedometer was showing a speed in excess of 100mph.
The swaying got worse at each curve and both driver and fireman guessed it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.
In the carriages, people were crying and screaming. Even those non-religious people among them were praying for deliverance from some unknown power, whether it be God or something else.
When it seemed that a wreck was only moments away, a cloud appeared ahead.
The driver and fireman had not spotted this before, but it hung low over the tracks like a mini fog bank. Driver and fireman gave each other puzzled glances and still kept trying to force the brake lever to its stops.
Suddenly the brake lever went home and there was a grinding noise as the driving wheels locked. There was a great shower of sparks from the wheels and the train was now sliding helplessly on the rails.
As the train entered the cloud, both driver and fireman felt a jolt.
‘This is it’, they thought. ‘We`ve lost it’.
The jolting continued and they thought at least one carriage had left the rails. The driver glanced up at the speedometer and was amazed to see the needle dropping back quite rapidly.
The speed came off quickly and at less than 40mph the wheels regained their grip on the rails.
With full brake still applied, the train came to a shuddering halt.
The mysterious cloud had disappeared.
It seemed like something or someone had taken pity on the train and its passengers, as if a giant hand had settled on the front of the locomotive and pushed back to stop it crashing.