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The Runaway Train True Story That Inspired Unstoppable

If you've logged into your streaming video account recently, there's a good chance that you've seen Unstoppable in the list of recommendations. The largely forgotten, critically beloved 2010 thriller, directed by Top Gun's own Tony Scott, tells the story of a seemingly inauspicious locomotive with two special gifts: a "Little Engine That Could" attitude about chugging off unaccompanied at breakneck speeds, and a payload of highly toxic molten phenol.

The film stars Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, playing a pair of engineers with a shared enthusiasm for not watching runaway trains careen into population-dense regions of the midwest, and somehow isn't the Denzel movie that they decided to title Training Day. It's got everything, from high-speed chases and thrilling action sequences to Kevin Dunn, but in the end, it's all just too far from reality. There is, the discerning viewer will note, simply no way that engine #777, a freight train loaded with dangerous substances, would be allowed to run at breakneck speeds, sans brakes and unmanned, across the mainland United States. That discerning viewer would be one hundred percent right.

In reality, it was engine #8888.

CSX 8888 and the importance of proper training

The whole hootenanny took place twenty years back, as is attested to by the way that every internet news article on the subject looks like it was copied and pasted from the Space Jam website. It was just after noon on May 15, 2001 when eagle-eyed railway employees in Walbridge, Ohio noticed something peculiar about CSX 8888 — namely, that it seemed to be taking itself for a joyride. The realization came after a conductor at the Stanley Yard repeatedly ordered the train's engineer to stop, only to be met by silence and a slowly accelerating locomotive.

Onboard, the train's engineer — who has, to this day, never been officially identified — had reportedly noticed a poorly aligned switch on the track ahead of him. The solution, to his mind, was to jump out of the vehicle, realign the switch, and jump back on, in a move remembered to this day as "the Really Really Bad Idea Maneuver."

The biggest problem, it seems, was that the engineer applied the engine's brake incorrectly before hopping off, inadvertently disabling the train's dead man's switch. What should have helped stop the train instead caused it to pick up speed. By the time the engineer was ready to climb back aboard, the train was moving quickly enough to trip him up. He wound up being dragged alongside the train for about 80 feet before getting loose, presumably while moaning "Aw geez, I gone and done it again."

The truth of Unstoppable is impressive, if less dramatic

And just like that, the chase was on — not a particularly fast or outlandishly long-lasting chase, the toxic chemical-laden train only made it 66 miles in around two hours, making it equal parts elementary school word problem and Michael Myers pursuit sequence.

Which isn't to say that there weren't remarkable events that accompanied the debacle. Attempts to stop the runaway train were varied and delightful: a controlled derailment failed when the apparatus traditionally used to bonk choo-choos off the tracks was pummeled by the force of the moving train. In a move which, in retrospect, really makes it seem like the cops just wanted to shoot something, local police attempted to shoot the engine's emergency fuel cutoff button, despite the fact that it would have needed to be pressed down continuously in order to do its job. The lesson here, for the record, is that no army on Earth will ever stop Thomas the Tank Engine should he ever decide to turn on us.

In the end, CSX 8888 fell prey to that oldest of truisms, that "the only thing that can stop a train is a second train, maybe with a third train left somewhere down the line just in case." As the loose caboose passed Dunkirk, Ohio, a second engine was dispatched behind it and sent in pursuit with two engineers onboard. This part actually was pretty impressive — the rogue engine reportedly reached speeds upwards of 50 miles per hour during the final phase of its journey. Once the intrepid railwaymen caught up to CSX 8888, the pair managed to couple it to their engine and apply the brakes, slowing the locomotive down enough that a carefully positioned third engineer was able to hop aboard the front of the train and switch off that pesky throttle. A third engine, prepped to try and stop 8888 from the front end, proved to be unnecessary.

Disaster averted, those involved received a pat on the back and went home to wait for their real reward: finding out which one of them would get to be played by Denzel Washington some day.