by Ron Simmonds
The 7.49 from Ealing Broadway rolled to a halt in St. Paul’s Station. The doors sighed open and one hundred and fifty people left the train. Forty pushed their way into it with difficulty. Even without the passengers who had alighted the train was still over–filled, packed tight with the morning rush of commuters.
The guard checked the platform for late arrivals, thumbed the button to close the doors, and checked again as the doors rumbled together. He pressed the driver’s signal and closed his own door.
The driver eased down on his hand control and Train No. 365 moved out of the station, gathering speed. As its rear lights disappeared into the tunnel the turbulence of the train’s passing stirred up several layers of dirt, dog–ends, toffee papers and used paper handkerchiefs in the trough below the rails, making them whirl gaily in the wind before settling back down again. The time was 7.50 am. It was May 15th.
The last coach rounded a bend in the tunnel, the noise of its departure faded away, and then the train, and all the people on it, disappeared from the face of the earth.
No one noticed at first. The platform announcer at Bank Station, which was the next stop, merely thought the train had been held up temporarily in the tunnel. There were extensive works going on with the new link that would eventually connect all the lines into one network. The project, with its complex signalling system, would make changing trains a thing of the past, speeding up travel considerably.
The first person to notice that anything was wrong was one of the supervisors in the Stock Exchange in Throgmorton Street. The fact that fifteen of his employees had not turned up for work by 8.30 could hardly be ignored. He called his superior, who notified the personnel office. They, in turn checked with security, who called the police and asked whether there were any unusual traffic hold–ups. Throughout the entire City of London there was consternation as bank officials failed to show up. Meetings were postponed, several counters had to be closed and many financial projects shelved as advisors and analysts remained absent from duty.
After a while, worry began to show on some faces. Some of the homes had been telephoned, only to learn that the husband, son or daughter had left for work at the usual time. By 10 am the City of London Police had compiled a dossier of more than seven hundred and eighty people who had failed to turn up for work. Yet still no one knew anything of any special traffic hold–ups. There were jams everywhere, as usual, but nothing that would explain a delay of this magnitude.
The fact that Train No. 365 had disappeared did not register in the central switch room of the London Underground system until 10.20, when one of the operators suddenly noticed a string of lights crawling across the wall display where there should have been none. He put his mid–morning cup of coffee down carefully on his desk and typed in a command on the console keyboard. His exclamation of surprise brought the supervisor, a testy, balding man of 55 named Wagstaff, swiftly to his side.
‘There’s a unit moving through the works area!’
They watched the lights move swiftly across the display. When they reached a junction they flowed smoothly across the intricate points system and continued along one of the branch lines.
‘Must be a malfunction. Those points aren’t connected yet—they’re still working on them. The power in the network isn’t on, anyway. No sweat, I’ll call up the whiz kids.’ But Jones, the head computer programmer, angry at having his circuits queried, could find no glitch in the programming. His diagnosis was quite definite: everything was in perfect order, and he could prove it. In spite of that there was still a train in the works area, and it was moving around on tracks that had not yet been electrified, over points that were not functional, and doing so at considerable speed.
Wagstaff phoned the Transport Police and sent out a general alarm to all substations. The reports piled in quickly. All service was normal, no tunnels were blocked, no malfunctions. Drivers were questioned, but they had noticed nothing unusual on the tracks.
‘It must be the display!’ snapped Wagstaff.
‘It is not the display!’ said the head boffin, but he was beginning to feel less and less sure of himself by the minute.
The works supervisor, a man named Stevens rushed into the room to say that one of his foremen had phoned in screaming with rage that a train had just run through the network tunnel they were wiring, barely missing the working party. While Wagstaff was still trying to assimilate that a call came in from the dispatcher at Stratford to say that one of his trains hadn’t arrived.
‘All right. All right!’ said Wagstaff. ‘I’m shutting down the system.’
‘You can’t do that! There’s better than thirty thousand people in transit down there. You’ll start a panic. There’s no knowing what might happen.’
‘Only for a second or two. Long enough to see what the devil is going on.’ He gave the necessary instructions quickly, and at 10.45 precisely the electric supply to the entire underground system was switched off. Platforms darkened to emergency lighting. All trains ground to a halt, completely blacked out. Ten seconds later the lights came back on again, and the trains continued on their travels. During the ten second shutdown the train shown on the display board travelled one hundred and twenty yards, going east.
Stevens took a call on his portable phone, snapped a few questions, then came over to Wagstaff. ‘You aren’t going to believe this,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘That was Jenkins, on the site. After the power went off he heard a train go by eastbound in one of the branch tunnels.’
‘That’s it!’ Wagstaff slammed his hand down on the console, angrily. ‘I want every bit of rail checked. That train is getting power from somewhere.’ He turned to the duty operator.
‘Look. Let’s just pretend that there is power out there in those rails, and that the points are all magically routing themselves.’ There was a snort of derision from Stevens. Wagstaff ignored him. He was thinking hard.
‘If that was the case, how would you go about stopping the train?’
‘Short of shutting off the power supply, which you just did, I’d have to switch every signal to red. Regardless of whatever the driver did the automatic brakes would halt the train. As a matter of fact: there’s a stretch of track in those tunnels that has been provisionally wired up for remote testing. If it goes in there we could switch to red.’
‘Do it! Now!’
‘The train is moving in the other direction at the moment,’ said the operator. ‘We’ll have to wait until it comes around again, if ever.’
They stood there and watched the string of lights traversing the works system. The room was filling up with anxious officials. Wagstaff mopped his brow. His face was ashen. He finally put into words what everyone in the room had been thinking.
‘We’ll have to evacuate the entire underground system. If that train leaves the works area there’s no knowing what might happen.’
‘Nothing would happen,’ remarked Jones, the programmer, who was a keen sci–fi reader. ‘They’ve gone into a Time Warp, another dimension. Normal trains would pass right through them.’
‘You shut up!’ howled Wagstaff, red–faced. ‘Keep your damn stupid theories to yourself.’ He stormed across the room and started to give the order to evacuate to the chief of Transport Police, who stared at him in horror.
‘It’s turning back,’ said the operator. He seemed to be enjoying himself. They all rushed over and grouped around the console, staring up at the huge illuminated display. The runaway train had, indeed, made its way right around the complex interlink circuit, and was heading westwards, back to the section where it had been first spotted. No one spoke for ten minutes.
‘Coming up to the test stretch now.’
‘Let it get well in, first.’
‘I know.’ When the train had reached the centre of the test track the operator punched a key. On the display the signal warning light on the test track turned red, and the train stopped.
‘Thank God for that,’ breathed someone.
‘No time to lose. Let’s get down there. Quick! Whatever happens, you just keep those signals at red.’
They took the underground, changing three times, but it was still quicker than by road. At Bank Station the station manager opened a pass door and they walked down the sloping tunnel to the new link system. They were met by the foreman, Jenkins, whom Stevens had kept informed of events while they were on the way. The place seemed to be deserted.
‘Where is everybody?’ demanded Stevens, but Wagstaff elbowed him aside. ‘Have you located it?’ he shouted. Jenkins nodded.
‘Well where is it, man?’
Jenkins hesitated. ‘You’re not going to like this.’ He went on a few yards and turned. ‘Look, it’s stopped up there in the tunnel. The question is—how did it get there? The power is off. Is this a prototype of some sort?’
‘It’s Train No. 365, it’s gone rogue, and it’s packed with passengers. Now take us there!’
Most of the workforce was gathered around the entrance to the tunnel. When they entered the shaft they could see the lights of the train some way along it. Wagstaff started running towards it, keeping well clear of the conductor rail, just in case.
He came up to the driver’s cab out of breath and leaned against the tunnel wall for a moment to steady himself while the others joined him. He could see the driver up in there, huddled in his seat. The train sat on the track, silent and motionless. Wagstaff reached up and grabbed the cab door handle. The signal light turned to green.
‘Look out’ shouted Jenkins. There was the soft click of relays and the train moved away past them, gathering speed. As it thundered past the lights from the windows flashed on their shocked faces. The train was still packed. One or two faces peered out at them, disinterestedly. The last carriage vanished in a shower of sparks into the gloom of the tunnel. Wagstaff picked himself up from the side of the track where he had hurled himself to safety.
They stood staring at the empty tunnel in disbelief. The green signal light lit up their faces.
‘That’s it, then. I was right. Look!’ Jones walked over to the conductor rail and, to Wagstaff’s horror, slapped his hand down on it. Stevens emitted a terrified gasp, but nothing happened. Jones grinned at them. ‘Told you so.’
Back in the control centre nothing had changed. On the display all signals in the test area were still set at red. The power for the region was still off and the rogue train was still running
The consequences were enormous. The offices of the London Transport Authority were besieged by the next of kin of the missing passengers. It was useless telling them that the passengers had appeared to be unharmed. The incident was a catastrophe that quickly reached national proportions. Someone suggested blocking off all the network tunnels, but that would either cause the train to crash, or force it out, unscheduled, into the main line traffic. Wagstaff finally decided to do nothing—there was very little else he could do. Meanwhile Jones had pulled out some circuit boards and was working on a little plan of his own.
During the next two weeks the train was sighted several times a day as it flashed by in one remote tunnel after another. The sound of its passing was registered even more often by station attendants, and the site operators, who now flatly refused to continue working on the network link until something was done about the runaway. Wagstaff had by now long realised that under normal circumstances most, if not all, of the passengers and crew of the train would have died of starvation. As they obviously had not, for the want of something better he turned to the programmer, who tried to explain the space time continuum theory to him, with little success. He showed Wagstaff the circuit board he was working on.
Apparently, after long observation, it was clear that the train was not careering around the network tracks at random, but was systematically choosing one route after another until they had all been covered once only, before starting all over again from the beginning. The train was, in fact, following distinct lines of force in the network, and seemed to be drawing power from them. His new circuit board was programmed to switch power to the conductor rails in each section at random. At some time or other, this should theoretically corrupt the force field, causing it to collapse. It sounded weak, but it was all they had. He activated the circuit board and started the programme. Now all they could do was wait.
For another week nothing changed except the wild reports and theories of the media, which was now demanding that heads should roll. Wagstaff slept in the control centre now, only travelling home to his house in Wembley at the weekends. He did so that Saturday, thoroughly exhausted, determined to return on Monday and resign if the situation remained unaltered.
On Monday morning he bought The Times, as usual, and waited for the train at his local station. When it rumbled in it was packed as usual. He pushed his way in and stood pressed up against an almost solid mass of humanity. It was just possible to raise his newspaper close enough to his face to be able to squint at the headlines. As the carriage lurched and swayed he caught sight of the paper being read by his immediate neighbour and caught his breath, his heart pounding. The man was also reading The Times, but the headlines were different. They were old news, in fact. He narrowed his eyes to read the small print under the banner, and saw that the newspaper was dated May 15th.
He looked around wildly. All the newspapers he could see in the carriage bore the headlines of the same big story. He remembered it now. A baby had been stolen from a maternity ward, causing a nation–wide hunt for the kidnapper. He folded his newspaper quickly and stuffed it into his pocket.
His fellow passengers looked freshly razored, well breakfasted. Each one displayed the usual bored patience of the commuter on his daily trek to the office.
Now what? Had he inadvertently stepped into the Time Warp, and was damned to travel round and round for the rest of his life with the others?
Seconds later the train swept into the next station and eased to a halt. The doors thumped open. Wagstaff was swept out on to the platform of Bank Station. The mass of travellers rushed past him. The train, almost empty now, closed its doors and moved out of the station. He stood there on the platform, alone for a moment. He had boarded the train at Wembley Central, a good half–hour’s journey from here. Bank Station was also on an entirely different line. The new network was not yet functional. There was no way he could have arrived here so quickly.
Oh well, he thought, giggling to himself a trifle hysterically, that’s good ol’ Time Warp for you. He made for the stairs. In future he’d take the bus, just to be on the safe side. On his way out he tore up his letter of resignation and threw the bits into a rubbish bin.
Copyright © 2001, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved