This weekend's big-budget blow-it-all-up action film Unstoppable, about an out-of- control locomotive hauling deadly cargo, claims to be "based on true events." The film paints the rail company as the greedy antagonist, out to make decisions based on the bottom line and not on people's lives. In the film, that company is called "AVVR."
So what were those true events and what rail company was really involved?
The 2001 incident upon which the film is based happened with the company CSX. Yes, that CSX, of the "How tomorrow moves" commercials touting "a ton of freight… a gallon of fuel."
The incident report notes that on May 15, 2001 "an unmanned CSX yard train consisting of one model SD-40-2 locomotive, 22 loaded, and 25 empty cars, 2898 gross trailing tons, departed Stanley Yard, which is located in Walbridge, Ohio. The uncontrolled movement proceeded south for a distance of 66 miles…"
The report notes that the locomotive became unmanned during a rather dumb blunder that fairly begged to be made into an action film:
"While the train was still moving at a speed of approximately 8 mph, the engineer dismounted the locomotive and ran ahead to reposition the switch before the train could run through and cause damage to the switch. The engineer was successful in operating the switch just seconds before the train reached it. The engineer than ran along side the locomotive and attempted to reboard. However, the speed of the train had not decreased as the engineer had expected but had increased to approximately 12 mph. Due to poor footing and wet grab handles on the locomotive, the engineer was unable to pull himself up on the locomotives ladder. He dragged along for approximately 80 feet until he released his grip on the hand rails and fell to the ground."
It turns out that the train was eventually brought to a halt in the same fashion the movie attempts, though with certainly less drama:
"At Kenton, Ohio, near mile post 67, the crew of Q63615 successfully caught the runaway equipment and succeeded in coupling to the rear car, at a speed of 51 mph. The engineer gradually applied the dynamic brake of his locomotive, taking care not to break the train apart. By the time the train passed over Route 31 south of Kenton, the engineer had slowed the speed of the train to approximately 11 mph. Positioned at the crossing was CSX Trainmaster Jon Hosfeld, who was able to run along side the unmanned locomotive and climb aboard. The trainmaster immediately shut down the throttle, and the train quickly came to a stop."
The engine from the incident, CSX 8888, has now become a bit of a icon for trainspotters. The Internet is littered with videos and tales from rail aficionados on the "infamous 8888."
By all accounts, including the official final investigation, CSX acted responsibly and swiftly bringing its engine to a stop. But it's understandable why the company might not want to relive the incident by approving its brand for use in the film. (trailer below)