Posted by: Jerry Garrett | November 14, 2010

Ten Secrets Behind the Making of “Unstoppable”

The movie “Unstoppable” is inspired by a true-life event, and although a good bit of it is historically accurate, the movie does often get factually derailed.

1. The 2001 incident upon which the movie is based involved a runaway CSX Transportation engine, which sported the number 8888 (not 777, as in the movie). Hence, the fiasco is referred to as the “Crazy Eights Incident”. Rail fans know that Engine 8888 was mean, old sucker: It was an SD40-2 model, made more than 25 years earlier General Motors, at its Electro-Motive Division plant about 120 miles east of Detroit in London, Ontario, Canada. It was powered by an enormous EMD 645 V16 diesel engine that was turbocharged, to produce 3,000 horsepower.

The "real" Engine 8888 - a locomotive with a personality

2. Unlucky 8888. Railroading historians say Engine 8888 had a personality all its own; it also had more than its share of bad luck – besides the 2001 runaway. In 2005, it had another “incident” and derailed. For years afterward, however, it was said that one of the most popular picks in the Ohio Lottery’s Pick 4 daily drawing was 8888.

AWVR locomotives ply the Bellaire Viaduct (Railpictures.net)

3. There is no Stanton, Pennsylvania, as depicted in the movie. The actual location used in the movie was the historically significant Bellaire Viaduct over the Ohio River, which connects Bellaire, Ohio with Benwood, West Virginia. The tracks are served by a private railroad, the Wheeling & Lake Erie line; it owns the two SD40-2 locomotives used in the movie – I thought it was cool that the locomotives had been purchased from the storied Denver & Rio Grande Western Railway.

When not making movies, the W&LE is a scenic railroad.

4. The Crazy Eights Incident started in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, and ended 66 miles later near Kenton, Ohio. The movie used privately owned tracks in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The Wheeling & Lake Erie tracks used were primarily those between Wheeling and Steubenville, Ohio. In Pennsylvania, filmakers used a scenic section of the Nittany & Bald Eagle line, which runs in the area around State College, Pa. In New York, sections of the old Western New York & Pennsylvania Rail Road were used between Olean, N.Y., and Emporium Junction, Pa. There was also trackage used in the Pittsburgh area, especially northwest of there, in Monaca. All of these little railroads are much more picturesque than the boring, featureless Toledo-Kenton route. I know; I’ve driven it.

Tony Scott prefers real action, with real actors.

5. Much is made of the “real” action shots that director Tony Scott insisted upon. Almost all of the movie was live action, with real locomotives – with a couple of caveats: The action sequences were often speeded up, faster than they were shot (check out amateur videos of the scenes shot at the Bellaire Viaduct, where the train was traveling less than 10 mph). The scenes of the “Stanton Curve” where the train got up on two wheels were augmented, Mr. Scott admits, with computer-generated (not real) action. Also the fuel storage tanks on the outside of the curve were added by computers; in real life, no one would be stupid enough to put fuel tanks in a place like that. Not even profit-hungry railway execs.

Bellaire Viaduct (Railpictures)

6. The Need for Speed: Movie makers need to hype the action, so runaway Engine 777 was shown being clocked by police radar at speeds of up to 71 m.p.h.

Even 80 m.p.h. was suggested at one point – which would have been a pretty good feat for a single ST40-2 pulling 47 cars.

The actual Crazy 8888s train never exceeded 47 m.p.h.

7. The whole Crazy Eights Incident lasted less than two hours, start to finish. It was over before most people even knew it had started; authorities had little time to take precautions such as closing rail crossings and setting up command posts – in fact, it happened a few months before 9/11 in a period of time before “Homeland Security” came into being, and made America a bit more prepared for catastrophes. Much of the country 8888 rumbled through was wide open flatlands. A couple of news media choppers did shadow the train, but there was no media circus.

8. Engine 8888 was, in fact, launched by a derelict rail yard employee who jumped out of the locomotive to flip a switch, and then couldn’t run fast enough to get back on, as the now-unmanned train picked up speed. Efforts to derail it failed. Yes, 8888 was also stopped by another engine that chased it down, and pulled it to a slower speed. But 8888 was stopped after it was slowed to 11 m.p.h., and a CSX employee was able to jog alongside, and hop back on. The moment did not involve a redneck racing his dually alongside the train at 80 m.p.h. – or a crippled rookie leaping from the pickup’s bed to the speeding train. But I would (and did) buy tickets to the movie version. The real-life version? I’m thinkin’ not.

What was Hooter's doing in this movie?

9. Why were Frank’s daughter’s Hooter’s hostesses? Who knows? I suppose the movie desperately needed something more sexy than a speeding locomotive (more than enough for rail fans or Clark Kent aficionados). But the Hooter’s bit was shot at a real Hooter’s in Pittsburgh. The restaurant/titty bar company staged a national contest to select ten of its hostesses who would get to come to Pittsburgh and appear as extras in the bar shots (oops, unexpected pun) with Frank’s daughters. I’m thinking 10 somebodies got shortchanged on their 15 minutes of fame.

10. Denzel Washington made a cool hand at the controls as the engineer, didn’t he? It was the Oscar winner’s fifth film collaboration with director Scott. When Mr. Scott replaced the original director in a 2007 coup, Mr. Washington agreed to work with his friend again.

Cool hand dude.

But the studio, Fox, tried to get the star to trim his $20 million fee – more than a fifth of the film’s total budget – by $4 million. Mr. Washington balked, then walked, and was only coaxed back after Fox gave in. The happy ending of Frank the Engineer getting all the money and benefits that he was due seemed especially apropos, if you know this little back story.

Jerry Garrett

November 14, 2010

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Responses

  1. In regards to point 9 above, from imdb:

    “Real life train engineer Jess Knowlton served as a technical advisor to Denzel Washington. Knowlton’s daughters actually work at Hooters, which is how Washington’s Frank Barnes character’s daughters wound up being similarly employed. ”

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0477080/trivia

  2. one thing that slightly disturbed me was the the white man has to stop the train cheered on by the black man . . . is it Up the Kyber, admittedly a British so called comedy, where the Indian train driver who up to now has been competent, has to give way to the white driver (=film star) and the Indian has to cheer him on ? different era, but totally racist

    • Totally racist. Like in Crimson Tide were Washington was the hero and the white captain Hackman was the asshole. I think your the racist here.

      • Absolutely right… I love how people can’t just enjoy a story. Seems to me pulling the race card all the time just perpetuates racism. Get over it…..

  3. Because the guy Denzel was playing daughters really did work at hooters, I use to work with him out of parsons yard in Columbus….

  4. There is a tiny town n Jefferson county pa named Stanton, and a slightly larger one in Westmoreland county named New Stanton

  5. the movie was great, I saw no signs of racism, black or white. I saw two men that did what they could, to work together to stop an un manned locomotive, and I have watched this movie about 12 times in the last two weeks, a big two thumbs up to denzel and his co star, but a big round of applause and kisses, to the actress that played connie hooper,omg what a fine drink of wine she is!!

  6. the lovely, miss Rasario Dawson, simply beautiful !!!!

  7. Saw this movie 2014 on tv darn good movie I am a rr buff my dad worked for the GN many years ago so as I get train magazine this was a good movie good job

  8. Re-watching this flick, it is well-made movie storytelling of an incident with barely a plot to work with and that is extremely linear, no mean feat to keep that interesting for 90 minutes of screen time.

    I’m not sure if the downtrodden underdog-to-hero theme makes me feel better about American life today, since the railway company would have fired this very same person to save money if the train rescue incident had never occurred. Things only turned out well for the man by remarkable circumstance that ‘forced the hand’ of Corporate to treat him decently. This only reinforces the cynicism of corporate America…

  9. The runaway RR engine no: was 777.


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