Unstoppable is a pulse-pounding runaway thrill ride with iron-sided save-the-day heroism on display courtesy of Washington, Pine and Dawson.
Spoil sports have been grousing that Unstoppable can't possibly be "inspired by true events." In fact, the runaway AWVR777 in Unstoppable is based on the real-life CSX8888 (crew) Y11615 incident that took place in 2001.
CSX8888 was a single engine pulling 47 cars, 22 of them loaded, for in-yard car switching. The Final Report on the CSX8888 incident is available on the Internet along with other accounts and documentation.
All six "gross errors" committed by the engineer responsible for CSX8888 are reproduced in Unstoppable, one of them being sugar coated with magic pixie dust, when the engine selector handle auto-magically pops out of "dynamic brake" and into "power" mode, with the throttle handle set to 8, the maximum setting.
The dynamic brake should never have been set during yard operations (gross error #4). Dynamic braking is optimal at speeds >=40MPH and it is ineffective at speeds <10MPH (except on AC locomotives, of which 8888 wasn't).
The independent brake of the locomotive was also set, which nullified the alerter switch system, which would have otherwise acted as a circuit breaker to the incorrect selector and throttle settings.
All six gross errors really happened and had to be made in the proper sequence in order to result in a powered runaway.
Two CSX employees chased CSX8888 in a private vehicle to a grade crossing, because they feared that its engineer had suffered an heart attack at the controls. The engineer had already stepped off the moving train back at the yard (gross error # 3). The CSX employees intercepted CSX8888, but were unable to board it.
The runaway CSX8888 did have hazardous cargo on board, variously reported as two cars of molten phenol acid (CNN) or molten sulfur (local Ohio news sources), the latter being less hazardous than the former, although both are toxic. The two hazmat cars were in the middle of the train and they were not considered to be at risk if the train had derailed. The hazmat cars were far enough in, for the surrounding terrain, that they should have remained on the track even if an engine derailment had succeeded.
CSX8888 had an average speed of 30-35MPH and may have been going as fast as 47MPH at one point. Four attempts were made at derailing CSX8888, three by diverting it through sidings and one by using a portable derail. CSX8888 dislodged the portable derail and threw it from the tracks. All attempts to derail CSX8888 failed.
CSX8888 was eventually stopped by a pursuit locomotive, running in reverse, CSX6462 (crew) Q63615. Avoiding a collision course, CSX6462 had to run in reverse, which blindsided the engineer during right hand turns. That required the conductor to setup at the rear of the locomotive, now the front, so that the conductor could spot for his engineer. The maximum unloaded speed rating for CSX6462 was 30MPH. It had to achieve speeds in excess of 50MPH to catch up with CSX8888. This meant that the conductor's end of CSX6462 swayed 18" from side-to-side at times. Had CSX6462 derailed, there would have been no way for the conductor to survive. Life and limb were definitely at risk.
CSX8888 was stopped without loss of life, limb and/or property.
When CSX6462 caught up with the runaway, it coupled from the rear and then the engineer applied CSX6462's dynamic brakes, to slow CSX8888 down, exercising great care not to break the train apart between the two locomotives. Once CSX8888 slowed to less than 11MPH, a prepositioned engineer was able to run alongside, board it and take control of CSX8888, bringing it to an orderly stop.
Almost all of these elements are incorporated into the story of Unstoppable, albeit in Tony Scott's ScottFree way. It's reality x2 and all of that's in the service of delivering a ripping yarn.
The same people complaining about Unstoppable probably swallowed everything Scott & Co served up in Top Gun without chewing.
Unstoppable does make a point of belaboring the fact that the hoses for the air brake system were never connected, but that happens to be SOP for in-yard flat car switching. You can't properly "kick" cars if their hoses are still connected. (That's my only beef.)
There are plenty of other things that never happened, or couldn't have happened, but none of that matters thanks to the acting talent on board.
Denzel Washington's Frank Barnes is a seasoned engineer and 28-year AWVR veteran who never shows any of is his inward concerns, whether they be about job security in downsizing times or worry for his two daughters working their way through college. Denzel's Barnes is all about the j-o-b and doing it right. Chris Pine's Will Colson is relatively new to the ranks of conductors. Rumor in the yard is that Colson's a beneficiary of union boss nepotism. Will's also got domestic problems at home that distract him from the job. This sets up professional tension when Barnes are Colson are paired to crew AWVR1206 for a routine run. Although Barnes has seniority, Colson's technically in charge. Pine & Washington have a lot of tension-cutting fun with this.
Rosario Dawson plays Connie Hooper, a rail control supervisor, who has got to plow through considerable BS, not only to find out what's going on with double-engine AWVR777, but also to figure out how best to deal with it, once it's determined that 777 is a fully powered runaway. Even after "corporate" cuts Connie out of the CBA/CYA loop, Dawson makes us believe that Connie is going to do the right thing, no matter what.
Kevin Corrigan deserves special mention for his turn as FRAMPE Inspector Werner. He convincingly supplies crucial factoids needed to solve the problem of 777, with a Spock-like just-in-time manner.