A Deadman’s Tale (Unstoppable, dir. Tony Scott, 2010)

It’s time for the beauty of transport Film Club again. Last time I shoehorned James Bond film Skyfall into the blog mostly because James Bond is cool. This time, I’ve finally caught up with a film I’ve been meaning to watch for some time and which has a more direct relevance to transport. It didn’t make a huge splash at the box office and it’s not, perhaps, the best advert for sustainable transport. But Tony Scott’s Unstoppable is a thrill-ride nonetheless, which raises some intriguing transport issues for those who like to ponder such matters. Which I suspect you do, if you’re reading this blog in the first place.

Unstoppable is the story of runaway American freight locomotive 777 and its train carrying squillions of tonnes of molten phenol (which is, well…I don’t think I was any the wiser at the end of the film exactly what it was, but the movie still had me convinced it was highly explosive and a Very Bad Thing), heading at high speed for a tight curve in the track in the highly populated town of Stanton, where the train will derail and cause UTTER DISASTER. This last point is heavily emphasised of course, such that the tension builds and builds as various increasingly desperate efforts to catch and stop 777 fail, including police officers trying to shoot it down, hoping that their bullets will hit the locomotive’s emergency stop button (but realising, belatedly, that they are more likely to hit its fuel tank…). The last hope to avert UTTER DISASTER eventually resides in the hands of Chris Pine as rookie railroad conductor Will Colson, and the always watchable Denzel Washington as old railroad hand Frank Barnes, in their trusty but slow locomotive, which is on track at the same time. Will they catch 777 in time? And if they do, how will they stop it derailing?

In the process of running away, 777 not only comes within a whisker of wiping out a train full of school students who are on a railroad familiarisation and safety field trip, but it ploughs through vehicles stuck on a level crossing to explosive effect, and also becomes a media sensation on live TV news channels.

Canadian Pacific's locomotive 9777 played the part of 777 in Unstoppable. Photo by Eric Jacobi [CC BY.2/0] via this flickr page
Canadian Pacific’s locomotive 9777 played the part of 777 in Unstoppable. Photo by Eric Jacobi [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

What Scott captures brilliantly with his camera angles, framing (and the work of a very good sound editor) is the brute physicality of American freight trains. Until you’ve had one pass you by at a small American station, it’s very difficult to get a handle on just how big they are. The locomotives up front growl louder and louder as they come closer until you can feel the noise hammering through your chest, and then the train rumbles past, literally shaking the ground, until the point at which your fillings drop out. Except for any Americans who happen to be standing with you, as most Americans have annoyingly good teeth. And it goes on. And on. And on. Those trains can often be a mile long or more, with over a hundred freight cars in the consist.

It’s a vital point to get across, particularly for British audiences. British freight trains are utterly puny by comparison (though I wouldn’t want to take one on in a fight), and our poor railfreight operators are constantly fighting a battle against the economics of operating freight services in a small country where road freight is an extremely viable alternative. A British freight train would still do real damage if one got loose, but our trains don’t really look the part.

Train 777, on the other hand, is every inch the hulking superweapon of the inimical forces of mass and inertia. The scene where 777 chews through a portable derailing device as easily as Jaws snapping through the back end of a boat is a visceral representation of the immovable but all-too-fragile object encountering the unstoppable force.

Unstoppable is a disaster movie of the old school, with a modern directorial aesthetic. All the tropes of the disaster movie are there. As well as the group of school children in immediate and unknowing threat of death, Colson has a difficult personal life, while Barnes is on the way out of the door to enforced retirement. Both of them (of course!) find themselves the only ones in the right time and at the right place to head off imminent disaster, allowing Colson the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his estranged wife and Barnes the opportunity to retain his job on whatever terms he chooses to dictate. Back at the railroad yard, there’s the plucky train controller deploying (uselessly, until far too late) the weapon of commonsense against an arrogant management, who don’t want to listen to her suggestion of derailing the train early on, because of the compensation they will have to pay and the damage it will do to the company’s reputation.

Scott brings the tried and tested formula of the disaster movie up to date. It’s not only rather more kinetically directed than the traditional disaster movies of the 1970s, but reflects a changed world. Scott tells the story partly through the inclusion of the rolling TV news coverage which would accompany any such event today.

Entertainment aside, Unstoppable also has something rather interesting to say about railroads in America. Most Americans are fairly uninformed about their railroads, which are dominated by freight trains rather than passenger services, unlike the railways of Europe. As such, American railroads are a bit of a mystery to many US citizens, except for the fact that trains are obviously big, fast(ish) and potentially dangerous. The bare statistics show that outside the travel areas of the largest cities, very few Americans ever travel by train. Unless an American works on the railroad or knows someone who does, it is quite likely they have very little, or no, personal experience with trains. That lack of personal contact means that trains remain a strange and exotic force, possibly lethal, possibly frightening, and that’s why a runaway train makes a perfect subject for a disaster movie.

That unfamiliarity of trains is neatly illustrated in the film itself by the class of school pupils out on their field trip. In Britain, and I’m sure the rest of Europe too, we don’t need to take our children to see a train for them to get an idea of what they are, and why you need to treat them with respect at level crossings. Most of them will have been on trains from time to time, from an early age. We still get railway safety officials coming into schools to drive home the rail safety message but it starts from a position of much greater familiarity than it would do in America. That said, it doesn’t always translate into an awareness of level crossing safety later on, as the British railway industry is all too aware (see below for a real life horror film compilation; the last one, The 100 metres hurdles, is particularly breath-taking).


In proper movie style, a caption at the beginning of Unstoppable states that it is based on real life events. I must admit I was rather sceptical about the chances of a locomotive getting loose and running off down the tracks under power. Anyone who knows a little bit about modern trains will be able to tell you that a driverless train should soon come to a stop because of the “deadman’s handle”, a device (pedal, treadle, lever or some such) which has to be regularly operated every minute or so by the driver. If it isn’t, the train’s brakes will be applied. In fact, it’s well-enough known that a character in the film, one of the local police officers, makes this very point. There’s a certain amount of hand-waving at this juncture as he basically gets the answer, “Do you really want to talk about this now?” Although never spelled out step-by-step (let’s face it, this is an action film, not a lecture for the technically-minded), the implication is that the locomotive has burnt through its own brakes, which did indeed come on because the deadman’s handle wasn’t operated. 777’s engine power overcame its brakes because its throttle was left open and because its braking system wasn’t connected to the brakes of its trainload of wagons, which would otherwise have operated in tandem with 777’s, and held the train stationary.

It’s all the more surprising to realise, then, that Unstoppable actually is based on real life events. In 2001, CSX locomotive 8888 and its train, which included wagons containing phenol, travelled 66 miles through the state of Ohio, under power, but without a driver. Its brakes wore through and it took the coupling of another locomotive to the back of the runaway to slow down the train enough for a railroad employee to jump aboard the runaway and bring it to a halt (Wikipedia’s page has links to the contemporary news reports and later accident reports).

The railroad bridge and viaduct, curving away to the left in the foreground, are actually in Bellaire, Ohio. Photo by Ryan Stanton [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The railroad bridge and viaduct, curving away to the left in the foreground, are actually in Bellaire, Ohio. Photo by Ryan Stanton [CC BY-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Unstoppable heightens the drama, as you’d expect, with additional incidents and levels of threat compared to the real incident. The tight curve in Stanton which is expected to derail 777 is real, though Stanton itself is fictional. The curve and adjacent bridge which can be seen in the film can be found in Bellaire, Ohio, but are digitally transposed to their new environment in the film.

The film has one final quality to commend it. Unlike so many films which overstay their welcome and could really do with a harsher editor hacking 15 minutes or so out of their two-hour-plus running time, Unstoppable lasts for just 98 minutes. It gets going quickly, keeps up the tension, and doesn’t let up until the final scenes. A bit like 777, and its real life precursor 8888, themselves.

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