The Idiot Express 馬鹿な汽車

It seems that even train conductors have plenty to deal with on the job. Author Toshiyama Yoshi tells us a tale of a close call in the middle of the night.

By Toshiyama Yoshio
Translated by Hamish Smith

I heard this story from a friend of mine who spent many years as a train conductor…

You get to see a lot things as a train conductor. Funny things, annoying things, dangerous things. But there is one story that sticks out as being especially strange. Yep, it happened quite a while ago. I was conducting a steam train late one night through a mountain rage. I took a look through the small window at the front of the steam engine. I could see the foot of the mountains to the right, a stream running through a valley to the left and two steel rails reflecting the pale blue light of the trains headlight to the front. Our train was moving at incredible speed. The cars behind the train were filled with sleeping passengers. It was the middle of the night and we, the train staff, were the only ones awake. I had the fireman stoke the coal fire and looked up into the silent mountains as the tank engine thundered along the tracks. If I didn’t manage the engine carefully it could end up costing several hundred passengers their lives.

I glanced out of the window again as I was taking care of things. What I saw made me gasp in shock. Light flickered on the train tracks in the darkness ahead. There was a huge head-light. It looked like an eyeball. I could also see smoke billowing from a chimney. There was something big and black and coming straight at us with amazing force. It was a train. A train coming in the opposite direction.

There was only one train line in that area. If two trains come in from both sides, the only outcome would be them crashing straight into one another. They use a roster to make sure there is only one train going between stations at a time to avoid that from happening. If there is a mistake on the roster, then another train will most likely come in from the opposite direction.

Both trains were hurtling towards each other with incredible speed, getting closer and closer right before my eyes. I had no idea what would happen if we crashed. I could only guess how many people might die. I quickly pulled the train’s steam whistle, put my hand on the break and tried to stop the train. The fireman and all the passengers stood up. The train coming in the opposite direction sounded its whistle as well.

It’s not easy to stop a train when it’s traveling at full speed. If I tried to stop it too quickly, the train may derail and flip over. But I still had to try and have both trains grind to a halt before they hit each other. We felt like death was already upon us.

The other train quickly closed in on us. It was pitch black, but I could see the smoke from its chimney and its huge, dazzling headlight. I could hear the sound of it rolling across the train tracks. If we crashed it would all be over.

It was just then that our train slowed down and stopped with a lurch. The other train stopped at exactly the same time. It was a close call. The two trains sat only, say, seventeen or eighteen meters apart. I breathed a sigh of relief.

The trains sat there, staring at each other. There was only one track, so neither of us could pass. Someone had to go backwards. The fireman from my train got out and went over to the other train. The fireman from the other train did the same. I had gotten such a fright that I was unable to breathe. I had never seen another train come in the opposite direction, with its smoke and headlights, the sound of it rolling over the tracks, only to have it stop less than twenty meters away. Though, I wondered, wouldn’t the light from our headlight clearly light up the train tracks and warm them of us coming? But the strangest thing of all was that the fireman from our train was walking along the same side of the track as the fireman from the other train, only I couldn’t see the other train any more.

I wanted to go over and get a better look. The two firemen met in the middle of the tracks just as I was about to get off. They stopped and started talking about something. Out of nowhere our fireman started hitting the other one. Then suddenly the other fireman disappeared completely and our fireman had pinned something down by his feet.

At that I and the other train staff flew out of the train and sprinted over to the fireman. He had a little beast pinned down on the ground with all his might. It was a big old Tanuki.

Finally we understood. The Tanuki had taken on the form of a steam engine and come running towards us, but because we had stopped, he had stopped too. When our fireman got out of the train, the Tanuki had forgotten about the train and taken on the form of the fireman, until he got caught and pinned down. We were apprehensive at first, but things had just gotten a whole lot stranger. It was then that I decided to give that raccoon dog a piece of my mind.
“You idiot…that wasn’t very smart, was it? What are you doing taking on the form of a train? If we had crashed into each other you would be torn to shreds. Next time change into something less dangerous and more sensible.”

So we gave the Tanuki some scraps of leftover beef and let him go. The Tanuki took the meat and gave us a couple of quick nods before scampering off into the bushes. We watched him go and had a good laugh to ourselves. We then got back into the train and went full speed ahead in order to make up the lost time.

Honestly, what a foolish Tanuki. Turning itself into a train of all things. That’s bound to get you into some kind of trouble. Even the most reckless have some boundaries.

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English translation © 2015 Hamish Smith. All rights reserved.