Unstoppable – The Story Behind The Film
November 19, 2010 § Leave a comment
On November 12th, the film Unstoppable was released by 20th Century Fox (my review here), starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. It is the story of a runaway train, and as the poster for the movie boasts, it’s ‘inspired by a true story.’
What is that true story, and how close is it to the movie adaptation? Of course we all know that presumably things are going to be amped up at least a little bit for a big screen adaptation – and often rightfully so – but I was curious, so I took the time to do a little bit of research and find out.
Interestingly, I actually researched the story after seeing the trailer, and watched the film after knowing the true story. While it would annoy some to go about it in this order, I still enjoyed the film and found knowing what actually happened possibly even added some interest for me. Still, if you don’t want to know anything before going into this one, I’d suggest to stop reading know, bookmark this page and finish reading later…
I will be comparing to the film, thus going through what happens in it. Again, stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.
The first change those who are already familiar with the actual train will notice, is the name change of the engine. In the true story, it was engine 8888, or ‘crazy 8’s,’ that was pulling the cars – in the film version, it’s 777, aptly nicknamed ‘triple 7.’ This is a minor change, and a smart one, alluding to the fact that this is inspired by, and creative licence has definitely been taken.
How it initially happened is roughly the same. The engineer was shunting cars in the yard, had the airbreaks off and had powered up the engine when he noticed a switch that wasn’t thrown a little ways down the line. He didn’t have enough stopping distance, so decided to jump out of the engine, throw the switch manually, and run beside the train and jump back on. He’d probably done this before, and it had probably worked – except this time, the train was in notch 8 – under full power – and the train accelerated too fast for him to catch it as it took off down the line – with several cars of hazardous materials being towed unmanned behind it… The engineer had caught up to and grabbed hold of the engine at one point – it was going about 12 m/h then, but since the handles were slippery he couldn’t pull himself up, and after being dragged for about 80 feet, he was forced to let go.
(Note this wouldn’t happen with a boarded passenger train – passengers can’t board without the airbreaks on, and someone has to stay in the engine…)
But what’s the difference from the film to real life? In the film version, we see who looks like an inept young engineer, while in real life, I believe the guy had been on staff for over 30 years. Some people say that the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if budget cuts hadn’t prevented putting two people in each engine, rather than having people work alone. Then, one stays on board, while the other throws the switch. Also, train fans have commented on how can someone who’s worked on trains that long get off a train under full power? It’s not that easy to mix up the brake and the throttle… (That of course, is all more opinion.)
Lots of things in the film are true. Two of the train cars really were carrying toxic molten phenol through populated areas, which would have caused needed evacuations had the train derailed, and in a surprising fact, State Troopers really did try to shoot at the small emergency fuel cutoff switch on the train’s engine beside the fuel tanks. Not the brightest idea – that small a rapidly moving target? Ridiculous. Another idea of trying to stop the train, also shown in the movie, was a derail placed on the track to try to dislodge the train – something that in both instances thankfully didn’t work (due to the train’s speed), since it would have caused a hazmat disaster to clean up. But what was really changed?
One of the first things they attempt in the movie, is to couple an engine to the front of the train, and get an engineer to come onboard (by helicopter!) in an attempt to stop the train. In real life, they did have an engine ready to do this if needed (I think sans helicopter), but because of the danger of trying to slow down to couple from the front, it was a ‘last-resort’ only option that luckily wasn’t ever used. Like in the movie, the train was eventually stopped by being coupled from behind – the less risky coupling option when trying to attach a braking engine on a runaway train. The real guys in the engine (Q63615) from behind were a conductor with just over a year of service, Terry Forson, and Jesse Knowlton, an engineer of 28 years.
Another thing is, in all reality, the train never did race through towns at 80 miles an hour. The max speed the engine reached was 47 miles per (it did have some brakes on and was dragging a bit preventing more acceleration), and by the time it reached the Findlay and Kenton curves (Stanton in the film version), it was down to a curve safe 20 m/h and dropping, as the engine behind it had coupled and kicked it’s dynamic brakes on full. They had the other engine ahead in case it was needed to help buffer the now slowed train to a stop, but they never needed to couple, as shortly after crazy 8’s slowed to approx. 10 m/h, Senior Trainmaster Jon Hosfeld, a 31 year veteran, who’d been following in a truck went ahead, ran beside the train, jumped onboard at a grade crossing and threw the brake. Again this differs from the film, where this was achieved by people running on top of the train cars, and jumping off and on the train between a pickup truck.
Sure, the real story was exciting, and prime for the big screen, but when sitting in a theatre for an hour and a half, you’re glad for just that little bit more excitement as things are amped up ‘Hollywood-style’. One thing to be thankful of though – in the real incident, there were no reportable injuries as a result of the train’s 66 mile lone Ohio rail trip. This was largely in part due to the fact that everyone responded quickly and accordingly, providing a strong police presence at all the railway crossings, since the runaway engine had no lights on and there was no one on board to sound the trains horns or make sure the crossing lights tripped.
To finish up, here are a couple more pieces of cool trivia about the film/story. According to IMdB, the ‘Stanton Curve’ in the film is an actual rail line in Ohio – however, there are no dangerously placed oil storage tanks beside/under the curved tracks – in the movie, they were just edited in there to add an extra hazard for the runaway train. And, from a Canadian perspective this is interesting: the locomotives used in the movie were leased from Canadian Pacific and dressed up as the fictional railroad’s locomotives.
Also, another note, is that CSX’s 8888 I believe is still pulling freight, so in certain areas, you might be able to see the [now] famous engine for yourself. As a matter of fact, when I was reading up on the engine, I came across videos people have posted on YouTube – apparently, trainspotters like to photograph/record the train going by when they can. What caught my eye though, is that one commenter (three years ago) said, “I was actually on the 8888 yesterday. I work for CSX and in the cab “the crewless engine” is inscribed.” Interesting. I wonder if that’s true…
If you haven’t already, after reading this, go see the movie version – it’s fun and worth it.
– Erin Corrado