September 22

1892 — Lindal Railway Incident


Arden always preferred to travel by train.  The rhythmic jostle of wheels on tracks invited her to nod off in the cushioned seat; or she could gaze out the scenic window, daydreaming as the panoramic world scrolled past.

The world wasn’t so scenic any longer.  But the jostle of the train still helped her relax.

“This seat taken?”

She almost didn’t open her eyes.  It would be so easy to pretend to be asleep, and the guy would move along.  There were plenty of other empty seats on the train.

A rustle to her left:  her purse being moved to the floor, and a hiss of air as the passenger dropped into the cleared-off seat beside her.

Arden preferred to have the whole row to herself, buy maybe the guy wouldn’t bother her.  Maybe he’d keep his mouth shut.

“I checked with the ticket guy,” her new traveling companion said, “and we’re on schedule. Well, that’s his best guess, at least.  The way I see it, they have to watch the tracks more carefully than they used to.  Always a chance some crazy folks have sabotaged the rails, which is why we have to move so slow.  Really gentle — almost rocking you to sleep, isn’t it?”

“Uh huh.”  She couldn’t help but open her eyes and acknowledge him, since he was sitting so close, talking so loudly.  “I think I might visit the dining car.”

“I just came from there,” the man said.  “It’s closed.”

“Oh.”  She made no attempt to hide her disappointment.  The dining car was one of her favorite features of train travel.  So elegant and civilized.  And it was her excuse to get away from unwanted conversation.  The man in the next seat was close to her own age, maybe a few years older.  He wore a suit and tie, but his graying hair was uncombed and a bit oily.

“I don’t think they’re doing the dining car anymore,” the man continued.  “It’s going the way of in-flight meals.  And flight in general.  They used to say airplanes were safer than riding in an automobile.  They were sure wrong about that.  I wonder where they’d rank train travel, if they did a new study…”

“I’d rather not think about it,” Arden said with an involuntary shiver.

“Oh, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.  Not at this speed.  If the ground’s going to fail, the conductor will have enough time to react.”  And then he launched into a long historical monologue, telling her about an incident in England in the 1890s.  Just beyond Lindal Station, cracks started appearing in the ground, directly across the rails and in the path of a locomotive.  The alert driver noticed a strange jostle from the engine, saw the shifting of the ground ahead, and he leaped from the train just in time.  A thirty foot hole opened up in the earth, swallowing the engine car, with the attached passenger and merchandise cars hanging back from the fresh precipice.

“They tried different strategies to pull the engine car from the hole,” the man said, finishing his story, “but the hole got deeper, and the locomotive engine was too heavy.  Forty feet, then fifty.  Then sixty.”

Arden found herself more involved in the story than she expected, actually asking him what happened to the engine.

“They could never manage to lift it out,” the man said.  “It’s still down there.”

She looked out the window, the landscape moving slowly past.  Sometimes, from an illusion of perspective, sections of earth seemed to move like an ocean.

“Oh, don’t worry,” the man told her. “The passenger cars didn’t fall under, and they got everyone to safety.  It would have been terrible to be stuck on that engine car, the earth dropping beneath you, and eventually getting covered up.  Abandoned.  Besides:  they’d have made more rescue efforts if there were people inside, don’t you think?”

That’s when Arden realized why he sat so close to her in a mostly empty train car, and why the man couldn’t stop talking.  He wasn’t hitting on her.  He was nervous himself, and needed to talk to another human being.

She just wished his topic of conversation had been more comforting.

“The situation then was completely different from today,” the man said.  “There were active underground mines near the Lindal railyard, and that’s what weakened the ground beneath the tracks.”

“Nothing like today,” Arden said, feeling the need to agree with him.

The wheels continued their slow rock and grind along the tracks, and she tried not to notice an extra jostle from the engine, tried not to think of the unreliable ground, a chasm splitting open and the train driving like a drill into treacherous, smothering earth.