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