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The mountain railway

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the October 2014 issue of Spotlight

Julie blew hard on the whistle and slowly opened the throttle until the big, red steam locomotive began to pull on the ten coaches attached behind.

The engine started slowly, picking up the weight of each coach until the whole train was moving out of the little station.

The coaches were filled with holidaymakers enjoying a journey through the Welsh mountains in the late summer sunshine. The original railway had been closed many years before, but in recent times, volunteers had been rebuilding it bit by bit.

Julie was driving today, using all her care to give the passengers a smooth ride. She had spent every holiday for the past ten years working on the railway. Yesterday, she had sat at a desk in a windowless call centre in Birmingham, answering questions from customers about fridges, cookers and freezers. And now, here she was, under a blue sky, and around her, fields and mountains.

Once out of the station, the train thundered along the narrow track with steam flying from the funnel of the engine.

A mile away, farmer Sam Evans was driving his green tractor across a field. He was thinking about sick cows and low milk prices and how to pay for tractor parts. Not that he wanted to be rich: he just wanted to survive. His family had been running this farm for more than a hundred years.

He stopped to let himself through a gate into the next field, taking care to close the gate again before he drove on. Sam had been up before 5 a.m. for morning milking. He wouldn’t be finished until after 11.30 p.m. “And for what? It’s killing me,” he told the empty field.

As the train made its way through the hills and valleys between Porthmadog and Caernarfon, there were many places where roads, footpaths and farm tracks crossed the line. Even though this was a newly reopened stretch of the railway, Julie knew the exact location of every crossing, and at each one, she would blow the whistle to warn of the train’s approach.

Sam Evans drove his tractor across the next field. He was thinking about bank managers and high interest rates. He was thinking about arguments with his wife and his father. The mountains towered over him, and he felt their weight pushing down on him.

Sam’s tractor was a John Deere 2355, built in Mannheim in 1997. Not quite six metres long, it weighed a little under three tonnes.

Julie’s locomotive was a Garratt NGG16, built in Manchester in 1958 for South African Railways. Nearly 15 metres long, it weighed 62 tonnes.

Julie blew the whistle as her train came to a level crossing. When it passed, a little boy waved to her from a waiting car.

The tractor slowly crossed another field.

The train rattled across an iron bridge and into a bend.

The tractor moved towards a gate.

As the train came round the long curve, Julie saw the little, green tractor moving towards the crossing. It would stop in a moment or two. The driver would jump out, ready to open the gate once the train had safely passed.

Sam was deep in thought. Maybe it was time to make a change. When you find at the end of the year you’ve lost money again, it must be time to think about alternatives. He drove the tractor towards the gate he had opened earlier that morning. He hadn’t closed this one. There were no cows or sheep in this field or the next. He stared ahead, thinking of what he would do if he sold the farm. What would his father think? What would his wife say? The nose of the tractor rose up slightly as it moved on to the railway track.

Julie’s heart leapt into her mouth, and she pulled the emergency brake, bracing herself for the impact.

The train began its long screech to a halt, and Sam looked round at the terrible noise. He stared in horror at the engine. His mouth opened wide. His arms and legs froze. Black smoke filled the air, and as the engine roared in his ears, the two machines slid past each other.

When the train stopped many long seconds later, Julie slowly opened her eyes. She climbed down from the engine and ran past the carriages of stunned passengers. The tractor stood in one piece in the next field, its driver leaning out of his cab. It seemed he was being sick. “That was close,” thought Julie. “Well, no harm done,” she called to the passengers in a shaky voice. “Best be on our way.”

Sam sat back in his cab, his eyes closed and his hands trembling. “Yes. It’s definitely time for a change,” he told himself.

Filed in: Fiction

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