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.
The story begins with the narrator calling "Halloa! Below there!" into a railway cutting. The signalman standing on the railway below does not look up, as the narrator expects, but rather turns about and stares into the railway tunnel that is his responsibility to monitor. The narrator calls down again and asks permission to descend. The signalman seems reluctant.
The railway hole is a cold, gloomy and lonely place. The signalman still seems to be in fear of the narrator, who tries to put him at ease. The signalman feels that he has seen the narrator before, but the narrator assures him that this is impossible. Reassured, the signalman welcomes the newcomer into his little cabin and the two men speak of the signalman's work. His labour consists of a dull, monotonous routine, but the signalman feels he deserves nothing better, as he wasted his academic opportunities when he was young. The narrator describes that the signalman seems like a dutiful employee at all times except when he twice looks at his signal bell when it is not ringing. There seems to be something troubling the signal man, but he will not speak of it. Before the narrator leaves, the signal man asks of him not to call for him when he's back on the top of the hill or when he sees him the following day.
The next day, as directed by the signalman, the narrator returns and does not call. The signalman tells him that he will reveal his troubles, that he is haunted by a recurring apparition: he has seen a spectre at the entrance to the tunnel on separate occasions and that each appearance was followed by a tragedy. In the first instance, the signalman heard the shouted words that the narrator spoke and saw a figure with its left arm across its face, while waving the other in desperate warning. He questioned it but it vanished. He then ran into the tunnel but did not find anybody. A few hours later there was a terrible train crash with many casualties. During its second appearance, the figure was silent, with both hands before the face in an attitude of mourning. Then a beautiful young woman died in a train passing through. Finally the signalman admits that he has seen the spectre several times during the past week.
The narrator is skeptical about the supernatural and he suggests that the signalman is suffering from hallucinations. During their conversation the signalman sees a ghost and hears his bell ring eerily, but the narrator sees and hears nothing of these events. The signalman is sure that these supernatural incidents are presaging a third tragic event waiting to happen, and is sick with fear and frustration: he does not understand why he should be burdened with knowledge of an incipient tragedy when he, a minor railway functionary, has neither the authority nor the ability to prevent it. The narrator believes that his new friend's imagination has been overtaxed and suggests taking him to see a doctor.
The next day the narrator visits the railway cutting again and sees a figure at the mouth of the tunnel. This figure is not a ghost, however. It is a man, one of a group of officials investigating an incident on the line. The narrator discovers the signalman is dead, having been struck by an oncoming train. He had been standing on the line, looking intently at something, and failed to get out of the way. The driver of the train explains that he attempted to warn the signalman of his danger: as the train bore down on the signalman the driver called out to him “Below there! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!” Moreover, the driver waved his arm in warning even as he covered his face to avoid seeing the train strike the hapless signalman. The narrator notes the significance of the similarity between the driver's actions and the actions of the spectre as the signalman had earlier described them, but leaves the nature of that significance to the reader.
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The supernatural theme of the story may have been influenced[weasel words] by Dickens's own involvement in the Staplehurst rail crash on 9 June 1865. While passing over a viaduct in Kent, the train in which he was travelling jumped a gap in the line where the rails had been removed for maintenance, and the cast iron viaduct fractured, causing most of the carriages to fall into the river below. Dickens was in the first carriage that derailed sideways but did not fall completely – it was suspended at a precarious angle by the coupling of the coach in front and held up by the remains of the viaduct masonry. Dickens helped with the rescue of the other passengers, and was commended for his actions, but the experience had a profound effect on his subsequent life.
"The Signal-Man" was adapted by Andrew Davies as the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas for 1976, with Denholm Elliott as the principal character. This production was filmed on the Severn Valley Railway; a fake signal box was erected in the cutting on the Kidderminster side of Bewdley Tunnel, and the interiors were filmed in Highley signal box. There is an anachronism in this production; Elliott as the principal character whistles "Tit Willow", a song from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Mikado; the latter was not written until 1885.
In the United States, the story was adapted for radio for the Columbia Workshop (23 January 1937), The Weird Circle (as "The Thing in the Tunnel", 1945), Lights Out (24 August 1946), Hall of Fantasy (10 July 1950), Suspense (4 November 1956) and Beyond Midnight (as "The Signalman", 1970) radio shows.
In the 2005 Doctor Who episode "The Unquiet Dead", in which the Doctor meets Charles Dickens, he mentions a particular fondness for "that one with the ghosts", clarifying that he means "The Signal-Man" (rather than A Christmas Carol as Dickens had assumed).
- PR Lewis, Disaster on the Dee: Robert Stephenson's Nemesis of 1847, Tempus Publishing (2007) ISBN 978-0-7524-4266-2. The book discusses the Staplehurst accident and many other 19th century railway disasters.
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