The house I grew up in was right next to a set of busy railroad tracks. From my bedroom window, I could watch the trains roll by. There were three types of trains that used those tracks and still do to this day. There were the long, lumbering freight trains pulling boxcars, flatbeds, and tankers, which I would try and count as they clattered by. Then there were the fast-moving commuter trains of the Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, a.k.a. MATA or “The M”, as some people call it, and Amtrak passenger trains that would breeze by, heading to and from the Central Station in the heart of the city.
Now, when most people see trains, they just see big machines rolling down ribbons of steel, but me, I saw trains as symbols of freedom and a way out of the hood. Whenever I saw a train, I would imagine all the places it was going to and coming from. Naturally, my favorite toys as a tyke were my Thomas the Tank Engine toys. I had all the characters: Thomas, Percy, Gordon, James, Toby, Daisy, all of them. When I was 10, my grandparents bought me a Lionel train set for my birthday. To me, it was the best present ever. It consisted of a steam engine and four passenger cars. There was even a small bottle of drops you’d put in the smokestack that allowed the engine to make smoke. I’d spend hours watching that toy train run around in an oval, pretending it was real and that I was driving the locomotive through forests, passed fields, across mountains, and past small towns. I eventually developed other interests – namely girls – but I still never lost my interest in trains.
When I got older, I applied for a job as an engineer trainee on MATA, and got it! For me, it was a dream come true. After I took the required classroom courses and exams, I soon found myself riding in the cab of the sleek diesel engines that pull the commuter trains.
Now, the way the trainee program was set up was that they’d have you ride on the different lines of the system for a few months with a regular engineer. I’d be on one line for a few weeks, and then I’d be assigned to another line, in order to be familiar with the different routes. “The M” has eight routes, all numbered. The main line is Line 1 and all the branch lines are Line 2, Line 3 and so on. I started on Line 7 the first few weeks before being moved to Line 8.
Now, Line 8, or the “Cloverton Line” as it is sometimes called, is one of the longest branch lines on the system, second only to Line 2, a.k.a. the “Millersport Line”. The first time I rode on Line 8, I was with a veteran engineer named Hank. Now, Hank had been with the company from the beginning, when the old railroads decided they wanted out of the money-losing commuter services, and handed all their locomotives and rolling stock to MATA. We had the “Night Owl Service”, which starts at 7 PM and ends at five in the morning. We picked up our first passengers at Central Station and were soon on our way to Cloverton.
As we were going down the track, Hank turned to me and said, “There is something you should know if you’re going to be working for this railroad, especially if they decide to put you here on Line 8 once they make you an official engineer.”
I looked at him and said, “Oh, and what’s that?”
Hank paused to blow the horn for a crossing, and then said, “This line is haunted.”
I replied, “Haunted? How’s the line haunted?”
Hank looked at me and said, “It supposedly started with a curse. Back in the late 1800s, when one of the old railroad companies was building the line, the company built the line across the edge of an old farm that belonged to a man named Ezra Gray without his permission. Ezra demanded that the railroad remove the tracks from his property and relay them somewhere else, but the railroad refused, due to it costing too much time and money to do so. Mr. Gray did try to sue the railroad, but was unsuccessful. You see, railroads were quite powerful back in those days, and the railroad had a lot of politicians and judges in their pocket. To add insult to injury, Ezra not only had to pay the court costs, but had to pay the railroad as well, for all the money they spent on the legal proceedings. This bankrupted Ezra and he was forced to sell the farm, minus the small patch of land the tracks were built on, and Ezra Gray vowed to get even one way or another. When the line later opened up, Ezra stood on the tracks in front of the first train. The engineer tried to stop in time, but Ezra was hit anyway. Before he died Ezra cursed the line, saying that it would bring death and sorrow. Ever since then, there were a lot of mishaps and accidents on these tracks and many people lost their lives. It is believed that some of those who died haunt various spots and that a few of the trains that crashed over the years come back as ghost trains, still rolling along these very rails we’re on now.”
I looked at Hank as he blew the horn for another crossing. “Have you seen any ghosts on this line?” I asked.
“Plenty,” he said. “I’ve seen everything from headless trainmen to phantom lights and ghost trains.”
I didn’t believe him at first but didn’t say anything. We eventually came to a curve in the track and when we came out of it, I saw something that made my blood freeze. Coming at us was the headlight of another train! “Hank, for God’s sake, man, put the brakes on!” I shouted. “Don’t you see the other train coming our way?”
Hank responded, “Yeah, I see it. Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
I looked at Hank and screamed, “Are you crazy?! We’re about to die!”
Hank just pointed straight ahead and said, “No, we’re not. Get a good look at that train.”
I did, and saw that not only did the oncoming engine have the shape of one of the older-type diesels, like you see in photos, movies and TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s, but it seemed to be a transparent shadow with a headlight and lighted cab windows.
“What the…” I started to say, but then that shadow train hit us. Well, not hit us, exactly. More like, passed through us. Our whole cab was surrounded by shadows and streaks of light as what looked to be a passenger train passed through, and I swear I saw the pale, wispy figures of people sitting in the seats.
Soon it was gone and the cab of our engine returned to normal.
“What the hell was that?!” I exclaimed.
Hank turned to me and said, “That was one the ghost trains I was talking about.”
“Well, what’s the story with that ghost train?” I asked.
Hank sighed and said, “Well, it all happened shortly after MATA was established and took over the commuter rail lines. An evening inbound train had just crested the long grade we’re on right now when it lost control and ran away, all downhill, before crashing and piling up on the curve at the bottom. Everyone on board was killed, and the cause of the wreck was blamed on the aging equipment MATA was using back then. Heck, with only a few exceptions, most of the engines MATA got from the old railroads were 25 to 30 years old, and about 30% of the coaches used were even older. Not long afterward, the ghost of that train started making appearances along this stretch of track, becoming one of several ghost trains that haunt these rails.”
I looked at him, then out the front window of the engine.
“What about the people back in the cars? Do you think they just saw what we saw? I asked.
Hank just shrugged and said, “Probably, but I’m sure most of them are used to it, so I wouldn’t worry too much. Our conductor is probably taking care of things right now.”
We continued on to Cloverton and arrived on time. We made runs back and forth all night, and several times I saw some of the scary things that Hank told me about. I was relieved when we finally tied up in the yard, leaving the coaches on one of the side tracks, and put the engine in the roundhouse.
The next few nights, however, were hell. Every night run, I had at least a few creepy encounters along Line 8, all of them with Hank, who would just shrug them off as if they were nothing. But I guess that after nearly 40 years, none of the ghosts bothered him anymore. After a few days I was put on the day runs, which was a relief to me, and I and didn’t have to worry about seeing ghost trains or headless trainmen again. I eventually became a regular engineer and was put on the main line run. I’m pretty content, but if the big wigs for “The M” ever decide to put me on the Line 8 Night Owl Service, I’ll quit.
Credit: Andrew Scolari
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