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The True Story Behind Unstoppable

June 2, 2020
3 min read

Starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, ‘Unstoppable’ (2010) is an action thriller that follows the story of two men who take on a seemingly impossible task of catching a runaway train. An oversight by an engineer leads to a freight train running unmanned with loads of hazardous substance on board. With no efforts to stop the train working, the authorities are forced to make a difficult choice. Should they keep trying more tricks, or should they derail the train before it enters a populated area and jeopardises the lives of thousands of people?

Luckily, two men come to the rescue with a daring plan to stop the train, but it seems a very Hollywood-y thing to do. If a train did run without any supervision, would it be possible to engage in such bold and risky acts? Are the actions of the lead characters plausible or is it just a trope to give a heroic sense to the film?

Is Unstoppable based on a true story?

Yes, ‘Unstoppable’ is based on the real-life incident of a runaway freight train. The incident happened in 2001 when the engineer of CSX 8888 got off the train to correct a misaligned switch. When he boarded off, he believed he had properly set the braking system. However, at the time, the air brakes of the train were disconnected, which meant that the train was free to move with no automatic brakes good enough to stop it. When it started picking pace, the engineer tried to reboard it. He was dragged 80 feet before he let go and the train began its 65 miles journey.

Apart from the fact that it was a runaway train with no way to remotely control it, another thing that made it a hazard was the thousands of gallons of molten phenol in its two tank cars. The toxic substance needed to be contained lest some sort of spill leads to the deaths of people in its vicinity. This detail was also included in the film.

All the attempts to derail the train from a distance failed, and the cops even tried to shoot at the emergency fuel cut off switch. But nothing worked, and the authorities had to come up with a plan that involved another train. Freight train Q636-15 uncoupled its locomotive #8392 which had engineer Jess Knowlton and conductor Terry Forson on board. They chased the runaway and coupled it to the rear car. The speed of the train was gradually slowed down and when it had reduced to 18 km/h, another trainmaster, Jon Hosfeld, ran alongside it to climb aboard and shut it down for good.

Several parts of the train suffered damage, but it was repaired and a number of modifications were made to it, including its serial number, before it started operating again. Unlike in the film, the name of the engineer, whose mistake led to the incident, was not disclosed to the public. There were also no casualties due to the incident.

The film takes several elements from this real-life episode but throws in more drama to add to the thrill of it. However, the filmmakers wanted it to be as accurate a portrayal as possible, and to get the technical details right, engineer Jess Knowlton was brought on board.

Read More: Best Train Movies of All Time

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