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Midnight Crossing

© 2019 CR Britting

Oncoming train with railroad crossing si

Southeastern United States, Fall, 1985

Rummm. Rummm. Rummm.


Billy Thompson gunned the car's engine impatiently as he waited for his friends to come out of the convenience store. It didn't help. Then he leaned on the horn a couple of times, but that didn't help either. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, they came outside, their arms full of snacks.


"C'mon, guys," he yelled, leaning out the car window. "Hurry up. I wanna beat the traffic."


"Man, oh, man," exclaimed Jimmy Hawkins as he quickly pulled open the door and hopped into the shotgun seat. "What a game! Our first state basketball championship. That team from Rocky Mount couldn't dribble past a bunch of pre-schoolers!"


Eddie Coleman and Donnie Perkinson were almost as excited as they climbed into the back.


"I hear ya," laughed Eddie. "They were so bad even Jordan couldn't help 'em."


"Whatever," replied Donnie. "We got the trophy and we're taking it home!"


"Well, one thing's for sure," replied Billy, "if I don't get this car home by 12:30, Dad's gonna have my hide.


* * * * *

An hour or so later, Amtrak train number 97, the southbound Silver Meteor, crossed the trestle over the Roanoke River and climbed the hill on the other side. In the cab of the lead locomotive, engineer Dave Petersen and his long-time friend, brakeman Morton Davis, were looking forward to the end of their run. In another hour or so, they'd reach Raleigh, NC and the end of a long day.


Just then the radio came to life. "Dispatcher to engineer, Amtrak 97."

Dave lifted the microphone and pushed the button. "This is 97, go ahead dispatcher."


"Take the passing track at Norlina, 97. Extra Eighty-Seven Seventy-Four is waitin' for you on the main."


A look of disgust crossed Peterson's face as he pressed the transmit button again. "Okay, dispatcher, we'll look for him. This is 97, out." Dave put the handset back on the radio and turned to his companion. "Well, looks like we get held up again."


Across the cab, Mort shrugged. "Don't make no difference, Dave. The pay's the same whether we're movin' or standin' still."


"Maybe so," Peterson replied. "But how the heck are we supposed to stay on schedule if they keep pushin' us off the mainline?"

The Meteor approached the crest of a hill and standing next to the track was a signal, very much like a traffic signal on the highway. The lights were easy to see against the night sky."

"Green over Red, Dave."

"Green over red. Clear," Peterson confirmed. For safety reasons, both crew members were required to "call" every signal they passed.

Half a mile later, they passed a large, white, concrete post in the ground. The thing was five feet high, with a large black letter "W" painted near the top. Peterson pressed a button on the console. Even in the sound-insulated cab, the deep-throated diesel horn sounded loud.

Eighteen seconds later, Amtrak 97 roared over the crossing at Wise, North Carolina, at a speed of 65 miles an hour. Two General Motors F-40PH locomotives, with a combined rating of 6000 horsepower, headed up the 12-car passenger train.


The Silver Meteor had left New York City early that morning and was bound for Miami, Florida, a thirty-hour trip. Along with its sister train, the Silver Star, the Meteor had been carrying passengers up and down the east coast of the United States for more than fifty years. During that time more than twenty million passengers had made the trip, some because they liked riding the train, others just tired of the hassle of flying. The trains were very popular, and getting a low priced seat on one of them usually required a reservation at least a month in advance.

The train roared down the other side of the hill. Dave and Mort had been riding the head end together for many years and they had no way of knowing this trip would be different from all the others.


* * * * *


Three miles down the track, at Norlina, Extra 8774 sat on the mainline track, waiting for the passenger train's arrival. A train without a formal schedule, an 'extra' is always named for the number of the lead locomotive, in this case, a General Electric U-30B. Five of the big diesels provided the motive power for the 128-car freight train, carrying everything from twelve double-deckers of new automobiles to three carloads of sugar.


About two hundred feet down the track from 8774 was a red signal, denying the freight train permission to enter the single track beyond it. A bit further away, a second signal faced in the opposite direction, toward the inbound passenger train. Alongside the freight train was a sidetrack. Originally built in the 1940s, the mile-long pass track could only hold about 100 cars, so the freight train couldn't use it. Instead, the passenger train would take the sidetrack and move to the far end. Once it was safely inside, the freight train could proceed.


* * * * *


"Yellow board, Dave."


"Got it, Mort, yellow board." The signal, about a mile from Norlina, normally told the crew to stop at the following signal. But with the dispatcher's radio call a few moments earlier, the signal was expected and Peterson knew he would be taking the passing track instead of stopping.


The Silver Meteor rounded a long curve and headed up a gentle grade as it entered the outskirts of Norlina.


"Red over yellow, Dave," the brakeman called. "There's 8774."

Peterson confirmed the red-over-yellow signal as he, too, saw the bright headlight of the waiting freight train. Dave pulled the throttle toward him and they began to slow down. Just then the freight train's headlight went out, a courtesy signal from 8774's engineer that he was safely stopped and waiting for the passenger train's arrival.


Half a minute later Peterson passed the red-over-yellow signal, and, accompanied by a sudden clacking of wheels, the passenger train crossed the open switch and headed into the pass track.


* * * * *


Sixty miles away, in Raleigh, the dispatcher was watching closely. In front of him was a huge board with colored lights showing every mile of track under his control. When the lights told him the Meteor was safely in the passing track, the dispatcher pressed a button commanding the switch in front of the freight train to close. In about fifteen seconds the lights indicated the switch had indeed closed, and he pressed another button, this time changing the freight train's signal from red to green.


* * * * *


As the Meteor proceeded slowly down the sidetrack, Peterson was surprised to see the freight train begin to move. "How about that?" he chuckled. "Looks like that dispatcher is wide awake tonight."


Davis snorted. "Oughta be that way all the time." Just last week they had been stranded on a sidetrack when the dispatcher had picked the wrong time to get a cup of coffee. Everyone had had a good laugh over it...except the dispatcher, who had received a nasty memo from the division superintendent.


As the train approached the far end of the pass track, Peterson put his hand on the throttle. If the freight train didn't clear the switch soon he would have to stop, and he really didn't want to do that. They were already late and having to stop would...


"Green board!" Mort said as the signal changed from red to green.


Dave breathed a sigh of relief as he confirmed the signal. Soon they passed the end of the freight train, a winking red light on the last car taking the place of a caboose, now gone forever with the changing times.


A moment later, the Silver Meteor crossed the switch and regained the mainline. They entered open country and Dave pushed up the throttle. The track between Norlina and Henderson, his next stop, was relatively straight as it paralleled U.S. Route One and this was one of several places where he could play catch-up.


* * * * *


At the same time, just ahead, Billy Thompson and his three friends were nearly home after their fifty-mile drive from Rocky Mount. They'd already consumed one six-pack and had started a second.


Billy's car, an old 5.0 liter Mustang, had a really good system, complete with fifteen-inch subwoofers in the rear deck. The bass was thumpin' and the four young men were singin' along with the Fugees when a diesel horn made them all jump.


Billy glanced to his left and saw the train. The car was doin' a little over the speed limit, but the train passed them like they were standin' still.


"Man, oh man!" exclaimed Jimmy. "He's flyin'."


"Let's clock him," said Eddie. Billy pressed down on the gas pedal, but the train was well ahead and it took quite a while for the car to catch up with the locomotives.


"Wow," he said, peering at the speedometer. "He's doin' eighty. I didn't know they could go that fast!"


"Let's see if we can beat 'em to the crossing at Ridgeway," Donnie suggested.


"Great idea!" replied Billy and mashed down harder on the accelerator.


* * * * *


Dave Peterson had noticed the car as it pulled alongside. "Look over here, Mort," he said in disgust. "I got some crazy kids trying to keep up with us."


The brakeman got up and crossed to the right side of the cab. Standing behind the engineer's seat, he could see the car on the road paralleling the tracks.


"They better hope they're no cops around, Dave. They're about 25 over the speed limit."


"Now where are they going?" Peterson said as the car suddenly increased speed.


"Humph," Davis grunted, returning to his seat. "Who knows what kids'll do these days."


* * * * *


Half a mile ahead, the track and the highway separated because of a hill. The builders of the railroad had carved a slot right through the hill, so the train could avoid a curve, but the highway curved around it. On the far side of the hill, a two-lane road crossed the tracks, leading to the little town of Ridgeway, three miles beyond.


"Floor it, Billy. It's gonna beat us!" Donnie yelled.


"I'm goin' as fast as I can!" replied Billy, glancing down at the speedometer. The red indicator hovered at the 110 mark.


The car raced around the hill, past a cornfield and then a heavily wooded area. They came to the side road, and Billy slammed on the brakes. The tires shrieked in protest at the sudden left turn and the car swung crazily back and forth as it fishtailed around the corner. The railroad crossing was 400 yards away and just at that moment, they heard a diesel horn and the flashers at the crossing lit up with their alternating left-right-left-right warning pattern.


"It's gonna beat us!" Jimmy yelled.


"Oh, no, it ain't!" replied Billy as the car gathered speed.


In their excitement, none of the young men had noticed a set of headlights back on the main road.


* * * * *


Onboard the locomotive, Dave Peterson pushed the horn button as they passed yet another white post with the "W" on the top, a warning that they were approaching a crossing. He'd just finished checking the schedule and they weren't as far behind as he'd thought. They would be almost on time into Henderson, and it was a matter of professional pride for him to run his train on time whenever possible. All too often though, they were late, sometimes hours late, as heavy traffic or mechanical breakdowns kept them from meeting their scheduled arrival times. Tonight looked like a good night and a nice way to end the week.


The Silver Meteor burst out of the cut moving at 125 feet per second. It was nine seconds from the crossing.


* * * * *


As the car raced down the road, Donnie saw the bright light emerge from the hill.


"There he is!" he shouted. "We got him!"


Billy wasn't so sure. It looked like it was going to be close. Too close. He took his foot off the accelerator and stepped on the brake.


* * * * *


"Dave! Look out!" screamed Mort, pointing off to their right. Peterson looked up to see a car racing at high speed towards the crossing. Instantly, he yanked the throttle towards him. Then he reached up and pulled the whistle cord again, a long piercing blast.


* * * * *


In the car, Jimmy had to use both hands to keep from hitting the dashboard. "Hey! Whatcha doing? He's gonna beat us!"


"So let him," Billy replied. He gripped the steering wheel hard, his heart suddenly pounding, and pressed harder on the brake pedal. It wasn't enough. He stood on the brake pedal with both feet. The wheels locked, and the car began to skid.


* * * * *


"He's tryin' to stop!" Peterson shouted. He blew the horn again. It was all he could do. He'd already applied as much braking as he dared.


The passenger train was over 1000 feet long and moving at 80 miles an hour, it was impossible to stop it quickly. Dave and Mort could only watch in horror as the car careened crazily towards the tracks.


* * * * *


Tires screaming, the Mustang skidded to a stop on the crossing, inches from the rails. Less than a second later, the locomotive reached it, the horn still blaring. The outside handrail on the diesel leading up to the cab missed the car's hood by less than three inches.


* * * * *


In the car, the young men were terrified as the huge locomotives roared past them. The vehicle shook and the noise was overwhelming. Then the passenger cars raced by, an alternating black and silver blur only a few feet away, and the Mustang's interior quickly filled with choking dust generated by the train's passage.


Suddenly the train was gone and they were alone in the night, the car's headlights shining brightly through the dust settling over the tracks. Streaks of burned rubber on the asphalt and a winking red light receding into the darkness were the only reminders of what had almost happened.


Billy reached over and punched at the stop button on the CD player. It took him three tries. Then it was quiet, and for a moment no one spoke. From somewhere a long way off he heard the sound of a diesel horn, a sound Billy Thompson would remember for the rest of his life.


"Oh, man," Jimmy finally stammered.


"Yeah," said Donnie. It was almost a whisper. "I thought we were dead meat."


"Uh, guys?" spoke up Eddie. "I got an idea. Let's not do that again, okay?"


Billy noticed a flashing red light and looked down the tracks for another train. Then he looked in the rearview mirror and saw the police car pulling up behind them.


* * * * *


In the locomotive cab, neither crewman spoke for a moment either. Mort Davis finally broke the silence. "Crazy kids."


Peterson glanced over at his friend. Mort's face was white as a sheet. Dave realized he was very thirsty. He reached down and picked up his thermos. After several attempts, he finally managed to unscrew the top, but his hand was shaking so badly that only part of the hot liquid ended up in the cup.


Neither crewman had mentioned it, but the train was only moving at fifty miles an hour.


"Dispatcher to engineer, number 97." The radio broke the silence, and the two men looked at each other in disbelief.


"Now what?" wondered Peterson. Mort cracked a smile.


"The pay's the same, Dave."


The engineer of Amtrak 97 took a deep breath and picked up the handset.


* * * * * *


Author's note:


The story mentions that 8774's freight train had 128 cars. Adding the five locomotives, that train is more than 6300 ft. long and weighs 7000-10,000 tons. When you're dealing with that much mass, *nothing* happens quickly. It takes a mile just to stop the thing. That's why playing chicken with a train is never a good idea.

railroad grade crossing at Wise, NC circa 1970. Image by CR Britting (c) 2018

This is the grade crossing at Wise, NC referred to early in the story. My aunt lived a few hundred yards up the track and each time we would visit her over the years, I loved to watch the trains go by. The pic is undated, but it was probably some time in the '70s. This route was abandoned and the rails removed in 1987. When I visited there in 2019, the whole area was overgrown and there were trees eight inches in diameter where the rails used to be.

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