CSX #8888: The Real Story of “Unstoppable”

This Friday is the premiere of the movie Unstoppable. Staring Denzel Washington, the movie tells the story of an unmanned runaway train and the attempts made to stop it. You can watch the trailer for the movie here. While there’s no doubt that inaccuracies will abound (it is Hollywood after all), it should be at least remotely entertaining.

What many of the general public do not realize, is that Unstoppable is a dramatic retelling of real life events. On May 15, 2001 CSX #8888 escaped from Stanley Yard in Toledo, OH. It quickly began a high-speed journey south along the Columbus Subdivision through the communities of Findlay, Bowling Green, and Kenton. The 47 car train reached speeds upwards of 50 miles per hour while authorities made multiple attempts to stop it. Eventually, through the actions of second locomotive and crew the train was safely brought to a stop, 2 hours and 66 miles later. Miraculously, there were no injuries.

CSX #8888 quickly earned the nickname “Crazy Eight’s” and the investigation began over just what happened. For an unmanned train to get out onto the mainline the stars must clearly be in alignment, and that appeared to be just what happened here. According to the report, CSX #8888 was moving a cut of cars in Stanley Yard (near Toledo) from a classification track to a departure track. The locomotive approached a switch that was lined incorrectly, and the engineer did not believe he could stop in time to avoid running through the switch. Instead, he planned to slow the train down, climb out, throw the switch, and then climb back on.

The engineer applied the independent (locomotive) brake as well as the air brake. The latter was ineffective as the air hoses were not connected to the locomotive. This is typical yard practice as it allows cars to be “kicked” and sorted easily. Finally he went to apply dynamic brakes, and this is where the error occurred. Rather than applying the dynamic brakes he moved the throttle to notch 8. With the locomotive now accelerating it was impossible to get back on after correctly lining the switch.

Immediately the CSX dispatcher, as well as local authorities, were notified of the runaway. Before long the locomotive burned through its independent brakes and the train truly was out of control. Even worse, there was no one to operate the horn or bell, and the locomotive light was not on. Luckily, the police were able to flag most crossings and prevent a grade-crossing accident.

Another significant concern to authorities were the two cars of molten phenol that made up part of the train. This chemical is mildly acidic and dangerous when inhaled or when it comes in contact with the skin (although not dangerous on the same level Unstoppable makes them out to be).

The attempts made to stop the train quickly mounted. At Galatea, near mile post 34, portable derails were placed on the track in an effort to push the train off the tracks. These were designed mainly for slow-speed derailments and #8888 blew threw them without incident. At another point farther down the line, the police attempted to shoot the fuel cutoff switch (a scene from Unstoppable with surprising accuracy), but the train traveled on unimpeded.

The situation began to get more dire as the runaway train approached increasingly urban areas with a number of tight curves. At this point a northbound train, Q636, was heading directly towards the fast-moving escapee. The dispatcher warned them to clear the mainline and take the nearest siding as quickly as possible. Q636 ducked into the Dunkirk, OH siding about 15mph higher than the rulebook allowed, but was able to get off the main track safely.

A plan was hastily drawn up to chase the runaway down. The crew of Q636, Jess Knowlton and Terry Forsonm, were asked if they would volunteer to try and catch #8888 from the rear. Excited for the chance to save the day, they uncoupled their locomotive from their train and waited for #8888 to pass by. After it cleared (at about 45 mph) the dispatcher threw the switch and the chase began. This was an extremely hazardous option, as it required the crew to travel backwards at high speed fully knowing there was a train ahead of them. A sudden derailment or stoppage could have ended very badly.

Just north of Kenton the crew successfully caught up and coupled to the rear of the runaway train. They immediately kicked their dynamic brakes into high gear and the train began to slow for the curves of Kenton. A little ways south of the city, CSX had another locomotive (taken off a nearby local) on standby to couple to the train from the front and slow it further, but it turned out this would be unnecessary.

Soon the train had slowed to around 11 mph. At the state route 31 crossing, Trainmaster Jon Hosfeld jumped on board and successfully shut down the errant locomotive. The chase was over but the legend of #8888 had just begun.Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

At this point it’s important to mention that this train would have never made it Columbus, as CSX would have either put the train into a spur or literally pulled up rails to stop it. A derailment in a known location is always better than a derailment that could occur near a heavily populated area.

Some have also questioned whether #8888 was equipped with an alerter (dead man’s switch) that would have prevented this kind of incident. According to the official report due to a technicality in the configuration of the brake system it did not engage properly. However, there is still a lot of controversy regarding this conclusion depending on who you ask, but most seem to think the application of the independent brake disabled the alerter.

Interestingly enough, the runaway story was not the end of “Crazy Eight’s” troubles. The ex-Conrail SD-40-2 has reportedly been involved in a number of suspicious incidents. As of this story, the locomotive’s wear-abouts are currently unknown. If you see it in your area be sure to keep your children and pets close at hand.

If you want to create your own reenactment of the chase, the HO model of CSX #8888 is available by Atheran and for sale on-line.

So that’s the story, as far as I know it. Be sure to watch Unstoppable and see if engine #777 lives up to the standards set by the original runaway locomotive.

References

  1. Kohlin, Ron. “CSX #8888 – The Runaway“. 14 Jul 2005. Accessed 10 Nov 2010.
  2. No driver aboard runaway train halted in Ohio.” CNN. Accessed 10 Nov 2010.
  3. Landrum, J. E. “Firsthand Account of Ohio Runaway.” Western Ohio Rails. 15 May 2001. Accessed 11 Nov 2010.
  4. Patch, David. “CSX to fix freewheeling engine.” The Toledo Blade. 10 Feb 2003. Accessed 11 Nov 2010.

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30 Comments

  • Fantastic write up! Thanks for sharing the REAL story!!

  • Wow, this is really cool. Glad I know what really happened, can’t wait to compare this with the movie.

  • Thank you for telling us what really happened! The movie was very exciting, but I was wondering how much they embellished.

  • It is true. In fact, 26 lbs. of independent brakes will dis-engage the alerter. we do this while loading coal trains (at very slow speeds .5 mph) to conrol the speed while in “slow speed” or “plug-load”.

  • […] watched Unstoppable on DVD. Based on a true and interesting story about a runaway freight train, it was directed by Tony Scott, who I think realized too late that he wanted to make an action film […]

  • And that explains p.t.s.d. My Dad was an engineer, but now, in prison. The railroad is a hard life. I am second generation daughter of railroaders, my husband the same. But it was a good movie.

  • The movie is great but I remember watching the whole story unfold in 2001 while home in Toledo, Ohio recovering from surgery. The real story is still the best because nobody got hurt and the men who stopped #8888 are the real hero’s

  • In the movie, a safety train with elementary students was able to get in the clear before an encounter with the #8888 and the runaway train. In reality, an Ohio Operation Safety train from Columbus to Toledo made it to Stanley Yard in Toledo almost as the runaway departed. The safety train was quickly unloaded and school busses procurred to take the passengers back to Columbus. It was safer doing it this way as a derailment or who knows what would have happened if the train would have gone around the curve in Kenton at the speed it was travelling. I was on the OL train and I do not want to think what could have happended if there would have been a “corn field meet” (head on collision).

    While the move was Hollywood dramitized, the technical aspects of railroading were accuarate.

  • The story may be true, but “air brakes” need air to NOT be brakes. Heard of this dude named Westinghouse? He invented them.

    The story of Crazy 8s’ might be true but “the brakes not being hooked up” cant be the answer

  • thanks for the work of writing this up… just watched the movie and was asking these very quesitons. THANKS for the time you took to write this up.

  • wow i remember that happened in 2001,that was a trip

  • Great account of the real story !! It’s too bad the movie was so hoked up with misinformation making real railroad management look stupid ( the characterization of the railroad president helping to make the decision from the golf course was a gratituitous slap ). A “bolt on” derailer would NEVER have stopped a 40 to 50 car train running with two locomotives ( as 777 was pictured ). I am glad that part of the ultimate solution was a siding ( or it could have been the main line ) where sections of rail would have been completely removed ( a la Civil War or the wild west ), I also didn’t appreciate the way the yard engineer that let the train get away was portrayed. He apparently was a 32 year veteran engineer with an unblemished record who suffered injuries while being dragged 80 to 100 feet before having to let go of the cab rails. Finally, the real speed of the train did not exceed 50 or 51 MPH ( and most of the trip was at 45 + or – MPH ). The movie version had it going 75 MPH or more. Rural roadbeds used mostly for freight are not maintained well enough to take that large a train at those speeds. In reality, there might have been a roadbed / track collapse which could have led to a much more dangerous situation if the locomotives and a few cars continued on. I kept expressing my opinions as we watched the DVD. Finally, my wife to me to shut up so she could watch the movie.

  • 12. i was amazed that this was a true story! even though it was a action packed, heart pounding movie based on a true event, it was one of the most enjoyable movies i have seen in a long long time….no violence, no outrageous cussing, etc….this is what movies should be about!!!

    Comment by BP – August 21, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  • To train engineer, in switching operations, air is bleed off cars and air hoses are not laced so cars can be moved or “kicked” down yard tracks. The locomotive only has dynamic brakes or independent brakes to slow the movement. The movie was accurate.

  • Thanks to Kyle and others for sharing TRUE events regarding this mishap – one always wonders what REALLY happened when the movie encore reads “based on true events”. Relieved no lives were actually lost.

  • My Dad worked for Conrail for 32yr.s which was bought by CSX but died before this movie premiered he would have loved it. Thanks for the facts of the real story.

  • “Great Movie” This is so amazing true story! Great suspence and action packed, heart pounding movie base on a true event, it is one of the most enjoyable movies that my husband and I have watch in a long time. Our favorite!!! No violence, no outageous cussing,etc. This is “only” what movies should be about!!! Thank you again! Would love to see more good movies for family entainment.

  • 8888 is in corbin ky has been for about 2years.

  • Just wondering why they didnt jump aboard when they had the locomotive in front. When they tried the ill fated
    aerial descent.

  • My local Conrail track is now Norfolk Southern. What was that crap in the film about the grain car “blowing a seal”? Can Hollywood not find enough excitement in the difficulty of coupling at speed, but they have to blow the end out of a car?

  • Enjoying the movie right now; I just thought I would mention that there was a “coaster” commuter train about five years back in PA as well. It coasted, unmanned, from a train station in Doylestown,PA for about three miles. Here’s a link with a copy of the newspaper article: http://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?2,1022547

  • I just saw it today and for a 73 old ‘ticker’, it really had it going. I thought, even though it was embellished with the faster speeds, the kids and the other train almost colliding – all fiction – that it was very well done. I am sorry the management was portrayed badly but that’s Hollywood. I hope the man who got off the train to change the switch really has some other job besides fast food – especially since it wasn’t a real situation we saw on film. And though the lady sure knew her stuff, I am wondering how in the world she was so smart – did she come up through the ranks of being an engineer too? Anyway – it was most entertaining and I agree – no swearing and mad sex.

  • “Unstoppable” is a very interesting and enjoyable movie; even my 9-year old was pretty much glued to the screen during the whole thing; and he usually only likes super hero movies! The real story is very interesting as well.
    For those who seem to have some kind of problem with the ‘liberties’ taken in the movie, you might want to pay more attention to the fact that before anything happens in the movie, a message appears on the screen that says “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS”. This does not mean the same thing as ‘Based on a true story” and it certainly wasn’t intended to be a telling of the real story. This was a FICTIONAL drama-action movie; it’s just that the fictional story was inspired by what happened with 8888. Neither the locations, the personnel nor many of the various actions were intended to be “portrayals” of the actual incident or anyone involved. The fictional story simply borrows many of the elements of the actual event. That’s what “Inspired by true events” means.

  • “The story may be true, but “air brakes” need air to NOT be brakes. Heard of this dude named Westinghouse? He invented them.

    The story of Crazy 8s’ might be true but “the brakes not being hooked up” cant be the answer

    Comment by train engineer — June 4, 2011 @ 4:44 pm”

    That’s not entirely accurate. The air braking system relies upon stored air pressure to apply the brakes in the absence of full air pressure from the air lines. That stored pressure is generally bled for in yard operations. Trucks have no such provision and loss of air pressure will apply tractor trailer or other heavy truck air brakes. Sure you didn’t mean to sign this “Trucker”?

  • on H B O I have watched this movie and it was well done. when they produce movies like this, it is joy to watch.tired of seeing violence. keep doing movies like this.

  • Great action movie just enough language to be real but not so much as to be offensive. Inspired by true events not based on them, so the story was embellished, hey it makes it exciting. Not real sure RR administrators were badly portrayed.

    Galveston Dan

  • Great write up.

  • As of november 18, vinemont alabama

  • i have a family of rail roading people from engineers to conductors and they all say the same thing…” if there isnt any air going through the brake lines then the brakes will be applied. it needs to be continuously fed to the air compressor. plus in the film when the other engine hooks up instead of the engineer manually braking every car.. why not use the hoses that were and that end of the train.. hook on to the locomotive then use that to brake?

  • […] What's funny is that isn't even one of the well sought after locomotives. 666 is one as well as the heritage units from various railroads. For CSX, 8888 was always a famous one to find as it actually escaped a yard in Ohio and was heading down the mainline with no one inside the cab. Here's the story on that one: CSX #8888: The Real Story of “Unstoppable” — Rare Mileage […]