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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
November 14, 2010