Is the Movie 'Unstoppable' Based on a True Story?

How much truth is in this Denzel Washington/Chris Pine film?

Unstoppable movie poster starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine
Poster for 'Unstoppable.'. © 20th Century Fox

Question: Is 'Unstoppable' based on a true story?

Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott teamed up for the fifth (and last) time for the action thriller about a runaway train loaded with dangerous cargo headed toward disaster. Chris Pine co-starred in the film, which was written by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Wolverine screenwriter Mark Bomback. The poster and marketing material says Unstoppable is "inspired by true events," but what's the real scoop?

Answer: Yes, the 20th Century Fox film Unstoppable is inspired by actual events, but very loosely. On May 15, 2001, an unmanned train -- CSX Locomotive #8888, which was later nicknamed "Crazy Eights" -- with 47 cars left Stanley rail yard in Walbridge, Ohio, and took off on a 66 mile. The cause? Prior to exiting the slow-moving train to fix a switch, the engineer made a mistake with the braking system which left the engine under power. The train, carrying thousands of gallons of harmful molten phenol in two of its cars, took off and reached speeds in the 50 miles per hour range.

For a little under two hours, the runaway train rolled through northern Ohio before another train manned by Jesse Knowlton and Terry Forson was deployed to catch up with the unmanned train. Knowlton and Forson were able to use their locomotive to slow the runaway train down to 11 miles per hour, allowing CSX Trainmaster Jon Hosfeld to climb aboard and stop the train. Jess Knowlton, who was the engineer who slowed down the CSX 888 in real life, served as the technical advisor to the film.

Screenwriter Mark Bomback embellished the events for dramatic effect. In the film, the runaway train reaches speeds of 80 miles per hour and becomes a media sensation, though in real life the train was much slower and the actual incident was over before it became a major news story. The plan that Washington and Pine's characters enact to stop the train is similar to the plan used in real life, except in the movie Washington and Pine's characters are treated like renegades for going forward with their plan. On top of that, the movie moves the events from Ohio to Pennsylvania.

The film also increases the amount of phenol that the real-life train was carrying, and implies that the chemical is far more destructive than it would be in actuality. The Blade, an Ohio newspaper, provided a full breakdown of the fact versus the fiction of the film.

As a result, the "inspired by true events" tagline that 20th Century Fox marketed the film with is accurate, but the events were changed significantly enough that a "based on a true story" tagline might have seemed dishonest to most moviegoers.

Edited by Christopher McKittrick