Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's to you all! This year's Christmas Special comes a bit late due to delays relating to my other work and the holiday season, but hopefully it will still resonate with everyone and be just as enjoyable!
Prologue: Five' o'clock
Winter had struck the Island of Sodor like a frozen, powerful fist, sweeping across the island with a force unseen for many years. Overnight, the temperature had fallen to levels that caused water towers and rivers to freeze and trucks and coaches froze together in their sidings, firelighters having to be brought in to remove ice from their buffers and couplings. A blanket of snow had fallen, covering every line, road, station, tree and building across the Island with the fluffy white particles that were wonderful to look at, but instantly began causing troubles. Delays swept across the entire island, the Culdee Fell Mountain Railway was forced to cease operations early, and the Packard and Co. machines were hired to clear away massive snow drifts that endangered the roads and rails.
Several weeks after the first signs of winter had begun, the Island was moving into a frozen Christmas that no one had prepared for. Recently, one big snowfall had cut off the Hackenbeck Tunnel on Thomas' Branch Line for a whole day, and Bertie the Bus had crashed into a tree after slipping on an icy patch. The big extension projects occurring all over the North Western Railway and beyond had come to stand stills, half finished stations and lines leading to nothing but snow spread out like ghostly warnings.
At Tidmouth Station, large heaters had been turned on inside the gift shop and café, leading to them being crowded with passengers desperate to warm up, their gloves, scarves and jackets doing little when the temperature was so low. The engines waiting in the platforms and sidings were barely warm themselves, slowly getting cold as they waited for their respective trains to leave, watching as snow fluttered past outside of the shelter provided by the roof.
Hard at work in the middle of the sidings was John Swanson. John was a shunter, meaning that it was his job to couple the various trucks and coaches together as they were shunted into their trains. It was a fairly repetitive job, as he stood on the sides of the tracks with the other men, rushing forwards every few minutes as two fuel wagons or a line of Express coaches required to be joined together. The job required attaching brake pipes together between the rolling stock and hooking chains over the towing hooks. John found the work exhausting most of the time, but it was made worse by standing in freezing temperatures with snow piled around his feet for hours on end. Thankfully, today was his last shift before the holidays, and John made it through by imagining putting his feet up in front of the fire place, enjoying his wife's vegetable soup and watching a Christmas special on the telly.
Finally, after more hours than he could count standing, running and coupling, John's shift officially ended. He bide a 'Merry Christmas' to the rest of his workers and quickly rushed towards the prefabricated hut that served as staff room and dumping grounds for all the people that worked in the shunting yards, as there was not enough room in the staff room in Tidmouth Station for them all. The hut was cramped due to all the lockers up against the walls and had a smell of sweat and dampness, but it was warm and had a couple of comfortable chairs that were all too appealing after a day on your feet.
"Finally!" John sighed as he stepped into the warmth, feeling it spread instantly through his body. He only realised now how much his legs ached and how cold he was, so decided to make himself a coffee and warm up before heading home. John had to do Christmas shopping on the way home for his wife and children, as his work schedule had forced him to delay it until these last days before Christmas, and would not survive an hour rushing around busy stores and waiting in overly long queues with his calf muscles aching so much.
"Hey John," a voice boomed, and John looked up as he sat down with his mug to see Frank, one of the managers, sidle into the hut, sucking his wide frame in so he could fit through the door. He opened his locker and procured a red suit, and John smirked to himself, remembering that Frank did shifts as Father Christmas on the station platform for bonus pay.
"Hello Frank, how are the kids treating you?" John asked, and Frank grunted back in response and waddled over to prepare his own coffee.
"Bloody nightmare! Yesterday I had a group of triplets at one point, all three screaming their heads off, and the mother refused to lose her place in line and spent nearly half an hour trying to calm them down. I think I still have a headache because of it!"
"I'll make sure Joseph and Anna are quiet when I bring them in then," John laughed as he continued to sip away at his coffee, savouring as the steam rising up helped to warm him up. Frank laughed at his joke, but was interrupted as a static buzz emerged from his trousers. John looked up as his superior fished a radio out with his meaty hands, and quickly spoke into it. John ignored the conversation as he savoured his coffee, going over in his head the gifts he had to buy and the stores he would need visit. It wasn't until Frank was looming over him with a grim look that John looked up, and he could instantly tell what was about to be said.
"Oh no, I've finished my shift!" John said, shaking his head. "I have Christmas shopping that I really need to –" but Frank began to talk above him.
"Tommy's gone and slipped on a patch of ice and has done his back in, so Jim's taking him to the GP down the road. We need someone to cover their siding as Duck is coming in in a few minutes and we have a tight schedule now after the Express was delayed before. His trucks are already there, you just need to finish coupling them together, should only take a few minutes." John groaned and angrily clutched his polystyrene cup, cracking it up the sides. He had been looking forward to this moment all week, and to have more work thrust upon him was the last thing he wanted.
"Just do that job and while I get one of the guys to go over and cover it," Frank said in a tone that made it clear that this was a demand disguised as a request, and John would have no choice in the matter. "I need to go up and play Santa Claus in five minutes, I can't stick around. Merry Christmas John," and the large man waddled out of the hut with his coffee, leaving John fuming in his chair. The young worker wanted to scream out, but instead he angrily threw his broken cup into the sink and buttoned his coat back up, storming out into the storm.
Bloody hell, has it gotten colder? John thought angrily as he stomped through the snow, the falling flakes trying to blind him as he stumbled over railway lines hidden by the white, wishing now that he had simply gotten in his car and left when he had the chance.
There was only one train in this part of the sidings, with a few random trucks and coaches scattered about. John huffed as he approached the mixed freight train and he checked to see where he had to start from. Half of the train was done, but the snow had picked up, and John knew it would take a while to get this all done by himself. He quickly went through the remaining trucks, trying to concentrate on doing everything properly, but his anger at being given the extra job stuck on his mind, and John took it out on the trucks.
"Oh damnit," John snapped as he came upon one of the last trucks and saw the brake pipe had frozen to the side. He angrily pulled at it, trying to break it free from the ice, but it remained stuck and John's hand slipped across the rough surface. Flesh was torn, and John cried out in pain as he fell backwards and managed to land on a spot with very little snow. Swearing, John quickly leapt back to his feet and examined the train: only two trucks and a brake van were left to be coupled together, and there was still no sign of Duck. John looked around to see if anyone was watching him, and then he angrily turned and hobbled through the snow, clutching his bleeding hand as dampness spread through his clothes, not staying a minute longer. The proper replacement would be there soon enough, and he would be able to finish the job. If John got caught, he would say that he had received an emergency call and had to leave immediately, or argue he had finished for the day and was allowed to leave anyway. No one was likely to question that, and John managed to smile, thinking that he was being very clever
On a railway, one small mistake can have huge consequences further down the line. Information getting lost as it was passed between signalbox to station could lead to a variety of incidents, not properly coupling a train together could led to trucks coming free, and simply not organising a train so it can leave on time can cause a series of delays, and when it occurs during such a stressed, busy and dangerous time as winter, these delays can have unexpected results.
As John drove away into the snowy night, he had no idea that not completing this job was going to have dramatic consequences to many engines on the railway that night, and when he heard of the accident at Crovan's Gate the next morning, it would dawn on him that it could have all been his fault.
Apologises for a lack of engines in this chapter, but I had to set up this part of the plot. The rest of the story will focus all on the railway and the roads