On a gray spring day in 2001, a 47-car CSX Transportation freight train got loose from Stanley Yard in Lake Township with nobody aboard its locomotive and traveled 66 miles to Kenton, Ohio, before a combined effort from railroad workers stopped it.
Friday, Hollywood's take on that incident — predictably exaggerated and dramatized to make it more entertaining, but close enough to the real thing to support the “Inspired by true events” announcement that flashes across the screen at its start — hits movie screens across the United States.
In Unstoppable, Denzel Washington has the starring role of a veteran railroad engineer whose successful pursuit of the runaway in his own locomotive slows it down just enough so that it doesn't derail in a populated area and release highly toxic cargo. His greenhorn conductor, played by Chris Pine, then rides a pursuing pickup truck to the runaway's locomotive and leaps aboard to stop it.
That's not quite how the runaway was stopped 9 years ago in western Ohio, nor was the real incident thought to have started, as shown in the film, with a renegade engineer who couldn't be bothered to hook up his train's airbrake system.
But anyone who recalls the events of May 15, 2001, when CSX Engine 8888 rumbled off on its own, can't miss how the real-life drama was written into the script.
CSX officials probably won't be as impressed with the film's depiction of fictional
Allegheny & West Virginia Railroad managers' willingness to risk a hazardous-materials catastrophe to avoid the up-front cost of derailing their wayward train in a remote area.
CSX's first response to its runaway was to try to derail it, but the unmanned train ran through a track switch lined against it and knocked a portable derail mechanism off the rail without slowing down.
Only after those efforts failed was the crew of a Toledo-bound freight directed to uncouple their engines from their train and, after the runaway passed them, pursue it — whereas, in the movie, managers threaten to fire Washington and Pine when they propose the same tactic.
According to a Federal Railroad Administration report, the real train was a yardswitching job whose engineer approached a misaligned track switch at the throat of CSX's Stanley Yard in Lake Township at a very slow speed that was still too fast for him to stop in time, so he climbed down from the engine to run and re-route the switch.
But in so doing, the report said, he failed to place his engine's brake-throttle selector in the braking position, and when he then shifted a control handle into full-power position, it was in full-throttle instead of full-brake. While he changed the switch, the train slowly pulled away before he could climb back aboard.
Locomotives have mechanical brakes as well as engine brakes, and the engineer had set the mechanical brake properly. Because that brake was set, a “dead-man” feature designed to stop the train if its engineer became incapacitated was disabled.
In the movie, the engineer also steps down from the locomotive to change a track
switch, and while he's doing that, a control lever somehow moves by itself to apply full throttle power — one of many elements likely to irk railroadsavvy
viewers, even though only a few materially affect the story line.
Movie dialogue soon brings up the “dead-man” feature, and a trainmaster played by actress Rosario Dawson explains that because the train's air brakes are not connected, it wouldn't work. Th at isn't exactly true, as the dead-man feature should also activate the locomotives' own brakes, but for the sake of simplicity one could assume that the movie engineer also applied the locomotive brakes.
Among the movie's first attempts to stop the runaway is the dispatch of another train's locomotives to pull out ahead of it, let it catch up, and then brake enough to allow a combat-veteran railroad employee dangling from a helicopter to drop aboard the unoccupied train.
But a sudden jolt sends the man crashing through a windshield, ending that effort, and an aborted attempt to derail the runaway at this point succeeds only at sending the slow-down engines careening off the track and wrecking in a huge, unrealistic fireball.
While CSX might have considered sending engines out ahead of the real runaway as a last resort, this part of the movie is pure fiction.
Had one or more locomotives coupled onto the real runaway's front engine, or
even just been pushed by it, anyone aboard the “rescue” engine could have just walked to the unoccupied ones and shut them down — no copters required, nor fireballs, either.
Such thinking, of course, would have significantly shortened the story.
The real-life chase crew caught up to the runaway several miles before it reached
Kenton, coupled onto its rear car, and braked it enough to get through sharp curves in town without derailing. Then a CSX trainmaster, Jon Hosfeld, was able to run alongside at a road crossing just south of Kenton, pull himself aboard Engine 8888, and stop it.
One way in which the movie and real life agree is the hazardous material carried in some of the runaway's cars.
Phenol is a chemical used in a wide variety of industrial processes that can cause skin, eye, or internal organ damage if touched or ingested, and is a toxic inhalation hazard if involved in a fire. While it does not readily ignite on its own, molten phenol easily ignites combustible materials, and burning phenol vapors may form explosive mixtures with air.
While the threat of fire was real, had the CSX runaway jumped the tracks in Kenton — or beyond — and its two carloads of phenol had ruptured, Unstoppable amps up the threat by quadrupling the phenol car-count and by placing the sharp curve atop a trestle next to a tank farm in a big city.
It also implies that a phenol incident would wipe out a large area, which is uncertain at best, though in a fire phenol could kill or severely injure bystanders.
But perhaps the most incredible aspect of Unstoppable is the speed and detail to which news media portrayed in the film gain information about the incident and those involved as it unfolds.
For a railroad on the verge of a major disaster, the A&WV is amazingly cooperative about explaining its plans and providing employee names and photos to the media horde that chases the fictional runaway.
Television covered the CSX train's “capture” live at the end of its journey, but it was months afterward before an explanation of the incident's origins was made public, and the engineer whose mistakes were blamed for the incident was never officially identified, nor were details of any disciplinary action taken against him revealed.
Investigators recommended no sanctions against CSX for the incident after concluding it resulted from a combination of improbable events that could not be foreseen.
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