I read this in 6th grade, I think. It wasn't long at all (maybe 20 pages). I'm not sure if the story was contemporary (1970s) and used archaic language because the story was set some time ago, or if the story was actually old.

As a 6th grader, I found it a fairly challenging read. Words were used in unfamiliar ways even if the word would be familiar in another context. It would have been something I was assigned because I was an advanced reader. It wouldn't be something typically assigned for 6th grade homework in a US public school.

One man visited the switch operator in his tunnel office a few times even though the two men were strangers at the beginning of the story. Over the visits, the switch operator told of a ghostly vision he had seen before two or three tragic accidents. I specifically remember the visitor suggesting that coincidences are often anything but.

At the end of the story, the visitor thought he saw the vision described by the switch operator. Then the visitor learned that the switch operator had just been killed in an accident in the tunnel.

I remember also not being shocked by the ending. I knew it was going to be something like that, although I did enjoy the story.

It had a vintage Twilight Zone feel.

I have the mental image of the switch operator physically controlling the track with a giant lever or switch. His job was very serious, but boring. He would sometimes do math in his head (algebra was mentioned) to pass the time.

Possibly set in England. Definitely not American old-west.

Ring any bells?

  • It could be before the turn of the century. That's the feel of it. I'm not sure if the words "switch operator" were used, that was just an easy way to describe it. He had lights, a bell, flags and a lever of some kind. – Jolenealaska May 9 '16 at 1:37
  • So it was definitely supernatural? This wasn't the SRA story with the dying moth on the headlight? – FuzzyBoots May 9 '16 at 1:40
  • Definitely supernatural. – Jolenealaska May 9 '16 at 1:41
  • 1
    If it helps, Rail Switches were patented in 1832. Remote switches came into play just shy of 1900; before their advent, a rail switch was thrown by literally flipping a very large switch (lever.) Either connotation could account for a Switch Operator with a tunnel office. – K-H-W May 9 '16 at 1:49
  • Then the story was probably set before 1900. I don't really have any idea when it was written. – Jolenealaska May 9 '16 at 1:52

"The Signal-Man", an 1866 short story by Charles Dickens, available at Project Gutenberg; BBC TV adaptation available at YouTube. Description from Wikipedia:

"The Signal-Man" is a short story by Charles Dickens, first published as part of the Mugby Junction collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round.

The railway signal-man of the title tells the narrator of a ghost that has been haunting him. Each spectral appearance precedes a tragic event on the railway on which the signalman works. The signalman's work is at a signal-box in a deep cutting near a tunnel entrance on a lonely stretch of the railway line, and he controls the movements of passing trains. When there is danger, his fellow signalmen alert him by telegraph and alarms. Three times, he receives phantom warnings of danger when his bell rings in a fashion that only he can hear. Each warning is followed by the appearance of the spectre, and then by a terrible accident.

The first accident involves a terrible collision between two trains in the tunnel. It is likely that Dickens based this incident on the Clayton Tunnel crash that occurred in 1861, five years before he wrote the story. Readers in 1866 would have been familiar with this major disaster. The second warning involves the mysterious death of a young woman on a passing train. The final warning is a premonition of the signalman's own death.

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  • Ding Ding Ding!! :) Thank you! – Jolenealaska May 9 '16 at 2:32

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