THE ZANETTI TRAIN MYSTERY:
FORTEAN FAKE NEWS?
As all good Forteans know, the internet is awash with creatively designed ‘phenomena’ web sites framed in impressive graphics, yet which are stacked with nothing but plagiaristic hearsay, anachronistic photography, rotten writing and few, if any facts. Add YouTube, a bit of weird music, a touch of the Illuminati, photo-shopped UFOs, a few shots of ‘alien life’ on Mars, and most surfers will be hooked way past their bedtime.
The sad thing is that, as all anomalists realise, once a long-running Fortean ‘mystery’ has been scientifically solved, another star in our galaxy of wonder is extinguished, so we need to find a replacement. Some internet stories are so dumbly concocted and naively colourful they take your breath away, because you realise that there may be people out there who actually believe this … yet with Donald Trump in the White House, fantasy has replaced truth, and I think I’ve found a terrific Fortean shaggy dog tale.
Unexplained phenomena, by its very ambiguous nature, can easily propel a hapless writer down the rabbit hole into a minefield of embarrassment. Over the past two decades I’ve covered a variety of mysteries including mad Nazi doctors, the Philadelphia Experiment, ghostly U-boats and maritime phenomena. In the latter category the stand-out story was the persistent mystery of the Dutch cargo ship, the Ourang Medan, found adrift in the Malacca Straits in 1947 with all her crew (including the skipper’s dog) wide-eyed and stone dead. After boarding parties left the vessel, she exploded and sank. For 20 years I became the world’s ‘go to’ internet scribe for this nautical chestnut. Even today, Forteans around the globe contact me every week with their ‘solutions’ to the mystery. The speculation over what happened was rife; poison gas, a Dutch ‘black ops’ voyage, an unknown virus, even UFO involvement. Saga magazine even sent me to Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum to track the Ourang Medan down. The archives yielded nothing. Then along came a meticulous U.S. researcher, Alexander Butziger who left me with much justifiable egg on my face. His 2014 book The Ourang Medan: Conjuring a Ghost Ship excavated deep beneath my staggered research and proved what I’d suspected all along – the story was a worn-out threadbare hoax propagated by (among others) the Nazis . Lesson learned.
Yet I quote Charles Fort from Lo!; “But some of us have been educated by surprises out of much that we were ‘absolutely sure’ of…”
Back in the 1950s I spent a few months working on British Railways during the age of steam. During the busy night shifts on Hull’s fish dock sidings, I’d often hear tales about weird goings-on on the rails or erratic train crew behaviour. This led to a fascination with the idea of ghost trains, terrifying tunnels and inexplicable disasters. One of the most successful stage plays written by Arnold Ridley in 1923 is The Ghost Train . (Yes, that’s the same Arnold Ridley who played the loveable old codger Private Godfrey in Dad’s Army.) It’s a creepy story about a group of rail passengers who spend the night in the waiting room of a country station, after being warned by the station master that if they stay, a ghost train due to pass through could being them death. There are many stories world-wide about ghost trains and strange disasters. For example, take William Topaz McGonegall’s unintentionally hilarious poem (beloved by Spike Milligan ) The Tay Bridge Disaster:
‘Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.’
Since that awful event, (and verse) it has been claimed that at 7.15pm each December 28th, accompanied by agonised screams and screeching brakes, the ghost of that ill-fated train can be heard, whilst lights have been seen coming towards Dundee.
Stirring stuff, but like shipwrecks, the rusting hulks of historical railway catastrophes gather mysterious, sinister barnacles mixed with dubious ‘facts’. In addition to Margaret Thatcher, the Lincolnshire town of Grantham is notable for another terrible disaster which occurred on 19 September 1906. The night mail train, which included a sleeping car, hauled by the powerful Ivatt Atlantic locomotive No 276 was en route from London Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley . The train was scheduled to slow down and stop at Grantham station. Both Caution and Danger signals, usually rigorously obeyed by drivers, were showing. They had been set for a Nottingham freight train. Yet the mail train didn’t stop. To the shock of waiting platform staff, it raced at speed through the station and was derailed, where the points were set against it, on a sharp curve at the end of the platform. A huge fire broke out. 14 people died, including the staff in the mail carriages.
Why did an experienced long-distance locomotive crew speed through danger signals to their death? Subsequent reports, following the crash told of the driver and fireman standing immobile on the footplate simply staring vacantly ahead. Explanations for their conduct included the suggestion that the driver may have gone mad or perhaps was drunk, ill or had been fighting with his fireman. The Grantham signalman said he observed the men through the loco’s cab front windows, standing calmly as they sped on. Another suggestion is that the driver suffered from a touch of sleep apnoea, momentarily dozing off whilst the fireman realised only too late. We shall never know. The great railway writer L.T.C. Rolt has referred to this as ‘the railway equivalent of the Mary Celeste’.
Inexplicable human behaviour in such cases often leads to speculative embroidery over the years. Grantham has a tragic echo in The Moorgate tube crash of 28 February 1975 on the Northern City Line. After failing to stop at Moorgate station, the line’s southern terminus, a train smashed at speed into the wall at the end of the tunnel. 43 people died and a further 74 were injured. An investigation found nothing technically wrong with the train. The driver had failed to stop at the station. Suicide? Some thought so. Yet the driver had over £270 in his pocket because when he’d finished work that day he was going to buy his daughter a car. Did he hit the accelerator instead of the brake? There was not enough evidence to determine the reason.
I began this dispatch with the hoary and now invalidated legend of the Ourang Medan. Therefore for those of you out there with a penchant for debunking fake Forteana, I hereby throw a new chestnut into the sceptic’s fire. For some obscure reason, the story of the Zanetti Train seems to be a major subject of fascination in India and Ukraine. As the story is based in Italy, this in itself is curious, but treat yourselves to an hour on YouTube and all will be revealed – even more so if you speak Urdu or Hindi. Dim the lights, open a beer and prepare to be entertained.
THE TRAIN TRAPPED IN A TIME TUNNEL
The story goes as follows … In 1911, an Italian railway company, Zanetti, is supposed to have organized an advertising campaign to demonstrate a new type of excursion train. They set up a free trial ride for well-off members of the community. I have tried in vain to link the name Zanetti to Italian railways or such a project, without success. There is an Italian tourist company of that name, but they’ve only been going for 50 years. Still, on July 14, 1911, a tourist train said to carry 106 passengers left Rome for a scenic excursion. (Another source claims 100 passengers and a crew of 6.) The train was due to pass through a tunnel in Lombardy. Which tunnel this is remains unclear. (A search on Wikipedia Commons will give you six potential tunnels, but from the legend no further information is available.) According to two passengers who managed to jump out of the train, it was suddenly enveloped in a white fog. Then comes this statement, allegedly given to ‘an Italian newspaper’:
“I heard an unclear humming sound. Beyond the black smoke, I could see a milky- white fog creeping from the tunnel – it literally swallowed the train like a wave. And with it the first car of our ill-fated train split open. It became so horrifying. The train was barely moving so I jumped from the car and my eyes caught another passenger who jumped at the same time. We both hit the ground hard, and that is the last thing I remember.” Needless to say, there are no names mentioned. The train apparently entered the tunnel and vanished, along with its passengers and crew”
According to one website, “After this occurrence the tunnel was stuffed with stones, and in the wartime an air bomb hit it.”
Apparently there was panic among Italy’s rail travellers following this incident, but if that’s the case I could find no reports on line from either the press, or a mention of the missing train on Italian Railways websites. The story seems to have become extremely popular in parts of India, although the reasons for this are not clear. However, a long way from Italy, it crops up in a new form in, of all places, Poltava, a central city in Ukraine. According to the website welcome-to-poltava.com, a gentleman named as “Chairman of the Board for Study of the Anomalous Phenomena”, one Vasyl Petrovych Leschatyi saw the ghost of the Zanetti train on a railway crossing on September 25, 1991 and we’re informed: “ The train with the curtains tightly closed and operator’s cab empty moved absolutely noiseless while smashing the hens walking over the tracks. (Leschyati) jumped on the footboard of the ghost and … nobody saw him anymore. And the train has been still going about over the Poltava region.”
Google the missing ‘Vasyl Petrovych Leschatyi’ and you’ll find nothing. Perhaps, lifted from the Indians, this is a good old yarn to add colour to a region’s tourism website. But Vasyl’s disappearance is nothing to what comes next. We’re further informed:
“Leschatyi found the records of the well-known Mexican psychiatrist Jose Saxino from the middle of the 19th century about once upon a time 104 Italians had appeared in Mexico City stating that they were arriving to Mexico City from Rome by train.”
That must have been some trip Zanetti organised – Rome to Mexico and back in time ! He ‘found the records’? Where? I’m not au fait with Mexican Psychiatry’s unsung heroes, but I couldn’t find a ‘Jose Saxino’, so perhaps he’s not so ‘well-known’ after all. Another website, ‘The Ancient Ones, Mysteries’, moves the arrival of the confused Italians to the 20th century, reporting that:
“A psychiatrist living in Mexico in the 1940’s, who took meticulous doctor notes, wrote the following: “One hundred and four people have been admitted in the local Infirmary. Their diagnosis is: mass insanity and it is the same in every patient. What a rare occurrence! All patients are acting completely erroneously, and not comprehending anything of what they are told. The truth of the matter was that none of them were Mexican or Spanish. They were Italians. An interesting fact was that none of them belonged to any ship company – I checked myself. What’s even more incredible is that each one of them claimed to have arrived aboard the ghost train of Zanetti. And not just from anywhere but from Rome. Our local fools even went as far as to believe that this was a sign from God and that these Italian patients were emissaries from the Eternal City. But this cannot be – trains do not travel on water!”
Well, he got the last bit right. Of course, in adherence to the usual internet sloppiness we’re not told who this doctor was or where his words are recorded. But there’s even more; a medieval report from the ‘region of Casta Solea’, that in a Modena monastery in the Middle Ages, the monks had a vision of a train, which they described as “a sled with a pipe, dragging three smaller ones behind it. On top of that, suffocating black smoke was spouting from its pipes.” Apparently two passengers emerged from the train but the Monks closed their gates and prayed as this could only be the ‘work of the devil’. It is claimed that this report is among archives stored by ‘the Sadjino Family’. Yes, there is a monastery in Modena, but as for the ‘Sadjinos’, they’ve proved elusive. (Although there is a hairy breed of pig called ‘Sajino’).
Finally, back in Ukraine, the train’s still running:
“On October 29th, 1955, a signalman on duty at the railway near the city of Balaklava (Ukraine) witnessed an unannounced train heading for the barrier of the station, and it was running where there were no tracks … he told famous writer, Nikolai Cherkashin: (who does exist on Facebook) “I rubbed my eyes, thinking that I was only imagining things – it’s not possible for a train to run where there are no tracks, but there it was – a locomotive with 3 passenger cars! And the entire composition did not seem to be one of ours – it seemed like it was from the war, or from an even earlier period in time.”
There’s been a suggestion that there was an earthquake in 1911 somewhere along the train’s route, and the more imaginative cybernauts have a theory that this may have opened up a ‘time portal’. But what happened to those reluctant Italian tourists in Mexico? Who were ‘Zanetti’ and ‘Jose Saxino’, and why, many miles away, do the Indians and Ukrainians devote so much time and space to this truly weird stretch of imagination? Maybe, like my embarrassing, wasted years spent on the phantom Ourang Medan, this is all part of the unhinged wackiness we Forteans enjoy so much. As the great Charles Fort asked;
“If there is a true universal mind, must it be sane?”
©2017 Roy Bainton