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“Unstoppable”: Just another train wreck?

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

Tidal waves, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, towering infernos, comets and asteroids hurtling toward Earth, railroads: All make good fodder for violence-filled action movies. Yes folks, another runaway train movie will soon open in theaters everywhere. This one’s sure to inspire confidence in the safety of the U.S. railroad industry—not!

On Nov. 12, 20th Century Fox will release “Unstoppable.” Here’s a quick plot synopsis, from the producers:unstoppablebanner.jpg

“A railroad company frantically works to prevent an unmanned, half-mile-long freight train carrying combustible liquids and poisonous gas from wiping out a city. A veteran locomotive engineer (Denzel Washington) and a young train conductor (Chris Pine) chase the runaway train in a different locomotive in order to bring the runaway under control before it is too late.”

Washington plays Frank Barnes, a veteran railroad engineer. Pine, emulating his performance as the cocky young Capt. James T. Kirk in last year’s “Star Trek,” plays a rookie train conductor assigned to work with the experienced Barnes. (“This ain’t training. In training, they give you an F. Out here, you get killed,” Barnes tells his green co-worker.) Tony Scott (“Top Gun”, “Man on Fire”) directed.

“Unstoppable” offers plenty of explosions, fire, spectacular crashes, wrecked police cars, near misses, overly dramatic television reporters, helicopters, gut-wrenching dialogue (“We’re talking about a missile the size of the Chrysler Building!”), innocent children (on a school trip, naturally), and guns. One scene appears to have the police attempting to shoot out the wheels of the rampaging lead locomotives with high-powered rifles. How silly is that? Oh well, that’s Hollywood. (Maybe they are shooting at the emergency fuel cutoff valve, or an air brake line–we won’t know until the we see the movie.)

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The railroad is fictional, of course, but the livery on the runaway’s modern GE power looks suspiciously like the former Santa Fe warbonnet scheme. The film is “inspired by true events.” From Wikipedia: “‘Unstoppable’ is loosely based on the ‘Crazy Eights’ unmanned train incident in 2001. The train, led by CSX Transportation SD40-2 #8888, rumbled on a 66-mile journey through northwest Ohio with no one at the controls, due to the throttle being applied on full instead of a brake. For two hours, the train sailed along at speeds up to 47 miles per hour until the crew of a second train coupled onto the runaway and slowly applied its brakes. Once #8888 was slowed down to a speed of 11 miles per hour, a CSX employee, trainmaster Jon Hosfeld, ran alongside the train and climbed aboard, shutting down the locomotive.”

To say that the director and special-effects people may have stretched the truth for dramatic effect is an understatement. As action movies high in crash and explosion coefficients go, this one should be an entertaining diversion from reality for a couple of hours. And few would dispute the appeal of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. Those of you in the railroad industry can go see the movie and understand that stuff like this is, well, highly exaggerated. But most moviegoers know little or nothing about railroading, and don’t understand that 99.9% of rail hazmat shipments arrive without incident at their destination. I wonder if “Unstoppable” is going to leave them with the impression that all railroads are rolling death traps, spiraling out of control.

Judge for yourself. Click HERE to view the trailer.

I’m going to go see “Unstoppable.” I’m going to take my young sons, and I’m sure we’ll enjoy it. But I’m not worried about any lasting impressions. They know better.

—William C. Vantuono, Editor, Railway Age 

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