The Haunted Rail: Ghost Trains

Welcome to Weird Wednesday! Today we’re setting off on another of our dubious journeys, this time by train.

(You can join our previous ill-advised trips by ship, another ship, plane, and bus or maybe elevator.)

“It is said that on that night, every year, all the train men that are on the road at a certain hour…hear and see and feel the spectre train rush by them. It sounds hollow and awful. Its lights are yellow, pale and funeral. Its train hands and passengers are sepulchral figures. … It even carries with it a whirl of wind as fast as trains do, but it is a cold, clammy, grave-like atmosphere, all its own. As it passes another train the shriek of its whistle and clang of its bell strike terror to the hearts of those that hear them.”

— “A Railroad Ghost Story” about the phantom funeral train of Abraham Lincoln, printed September 13, 1879 in the Rockland County Journal (New York)

When we’re talking about the haunting of mass transportation, whether it be plane, ship, bus, subway, or train, there are actually several varieties of legend. The first is the classic ghost vehicle, as described above: the train itself is a ghost, traveling on tracks still in use, or (more eerily) areas where tracks used to run. You can see and hear this train well enough to be terrified, but you can’t go on board. Usually these ghost trains are recreations of funeral trains or trains which crashed. Sometimes you get the crash itself reenacted, with the sounds of crunching metal and screaming passengers. The train may also be a death omen for anyone who sees it.

A second type focuses on the ghosts of passengers themselves. This is where you get vanishing hitchhiker-type stories, where a traveler whose train, plane, or bus crashed is forever trying to reach the destination they never made in life. They appear as regular people, although maybe in outdated clothing, asking for rides from people on their way to the station or airport, and then disappearing before the destination is reached.

A third type of ghost vehicle occurs when parts from a crashed train or plane are reused in other vehicles. People report ghost passengers and/or crew on planes or trains using reclaimed parts. Often ghosts of pilots or drivers are said to be quite helpful, wanting to help keep other crews from meeting the same fate they did.

And then finally you get the kind of ghost vehicle which is actually dangerous, because you can board this one, and you really do not want to. That’s right, it’s the train to Hell. The trope of doomed souls making their last journey is related to some versions of the Wild Hunt, and may serve as a warning to others not to do anything that would earn them a ticket on this train. 

And now for some on-track writing prompts!

  • Memento Mori. Hauntings that replay tragedies are called residual hauntings. They’re like an old movie, where none of the actors are actually present in your living room, but you can watch them over and over. Grieving characters might be drawn to the scene of a train crash on its anniversary for a last glimpse of a loved one who died on the train. Or they might hear rumors of vanishing-hitchhiker passengers and hope they might recognize one. A character could even contact a necromancer (a person with the magical skill to summon the dead) to try to keep the hitchhiker from vanishing.

  • The never-ending journey. Lincoln’s ghost train is said to have skeletons in military uniforms and a band playing silently. What would it be like to be a passenger on a ghostly funeral train? Perhaps your character might be called forth from their supposedly-eternal rest to take a trip once a year. Or maybe they’re on the train all the time. It’s not a train to Hell, but they’re stuck there all the same, just because they got hired to be in the band after some famous person died.

  • Ticket to ride. Let’s say your character’s dirty deeds have secured them a spot on the train to Hell. What would that ride actually be like? Are the other passengers regretful or throwing one last cocktail party? What is the scenery outside the windows? Most importantly: who’s driving, and are they open to bribes and/or vulnerable to attack? In real life, hijacking a train is less useful than other methods of transport, because a train can only go where there are tracks. But who knows what the tracks are like between here and Hell….

  • Travel in style. What if your character is a train buff? Say they were born too late for the golden age of steam travel, but after death, they’re offered a ticket to ride the rails forever. Where would their ghost train travel? Could it interact with the living world? Or maybe your character would be a ghost on a real train, getting to know the real daily passengers while remaining invisible to them. What would happen if that real train was fated to crash? Would your ghost character be able to do anything about it?

Thanks for spending your Weird Wednesday here! We’ll leave off the joke at the end of this article for something serious: please do not go running down to your local train tracks to listen for ghost trains, as some of my source articles advise. Real trains have killed ghost hunters, as other cited articles will tell you. If you really want to experience a ghost train, it’s probably best to write a story about one.

Want to chat about the blog? Did you use one of the prompts? Hit me up on social media.

Feel free to check out my own ghost train story The Train Ticket in the anthology Queer Weird West Talesa man finds himself holding a ticket to Hell after accidentally robbing a ghost train. 

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