Atomic Train

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Atomic Train
Atomic train poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Genre Disaster
Written by Jeff Fazio et al.
Directed by David Jackson
Dick Lowry
Starring Rob Lowe
Kristin Davis
Esai Morales
John Finn
Mena Suvari
Theme music composer Lee Holdridge
Original language(s) English
Running time 168 minutes
Distributor Trimark Home Video (DVD)
Original network NBC
Original release May 16 – May 17, 1999

Atomic Train is a 1999 action-thriller film about an accidental nuclear explosion destroying the city of Denver. It was originally broadcast as a television film on NBC as a two-part miniseries.


A waste disposal company has a Russian nuclear bomb to transport, and an employee decides to save money by concealing it on a freight train. This train is also loaded with hazardous and flammable chemicals, including metallic sodium, which spontaneously ignites on contact with water. The train suffers a brake failure and becomes a runaway heading for Denver. John Seger, a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator, boards the train and with the assistance of the railwaymen tries various ways to stop the train. Several ideas are tried, such as coupling a following train to the caboose (the coupling mechanism on the caboose breaks, which also results in the death of one of the train's crew members), a derailing attempt (after it is revealed the catastrophe the chemicals would cause if ignited) in which a helicopter narrowly avoids being hit, and finally, an attempt at manually activating the brakes (via hitting a part of the engine mechanism with a wrench). The final attempt works successfully, but is short-lived. The following rescue train, unaware of the freight's slowing, speeds forward and crushes the caboose (killing an injured crew member in the process). The force disengages the brakes, this time for good, causing the train to speed up once again. Meanwhile, Denver residents are struggling to collect their families and then leave town, despite rioters, looters, and gridlock. Realizing that there is no way to stop it, John and the engineer (who was initially reluctant) abandon the train by jumping off before it can speed up too much.

The train derails and becomes a terrific wreck. Discovering the now highly unstable bomb on board, firefighters struggle to extinguish the fire at the crash site. After realizing that metallic sodium is on the train, the firefighters and NEST teams retreat to evaluate a strategy. In the meantime, all fire-fighting aircraft are grounded. The misinterpretation of a radio call to a water bombing helicopter leads it to dump its load of water onto the wreck. Water comes into contact with the metallic sodium, which explodes and in turn causes the nuclear bomb to detonate. The blast causes severe damage throughout Denver and releases an electromagnetic pulse. No cars work, electricity is down and anything with a computer is shut down.

After the blast, Denver lies in ruins. John (who made it back to town via helicopter) then attempts to get his family out of Denver before nuclear fallout starts. After finding a working car, John eventually reunites with his family at a FEMA refugee camp in Eminence, Kansas.


Plot and factual flaws[edit]

The movie is notorious for its factual and plot oversights. Most often quoted is that the train is said to become a runaway when it is still 300 miles west of Denver with a continuous decline ahead. Since this would place it on the other side of the Continental Divide, it should be going generally uphill for most of the first 250 miles, a critical plot flaw.

Furthermore, for safety reasons all trains are fitted with Westinghouse air brakes. In the event of a failure, such as an air leak like that which occurs in the movie, the brakes would be fully applied, thus stopping the train, rather than rendering it a runaway.[1]

Almost all railway cars and locomotives have handbrakes for one, more or all axles.[2] No one on the train applies them, although they are near the handwheel. On the summit where the train practically comes to a standstill it would have been easy to apply some handbrakes and prevent the train rolling down.

Also, it should have been possible to break the gladhand connector coupling between the engine consist and the freight cars, decoupling them, leaving the engines alone as a runaway, and allowing the rest of the train to brake to a stop. With the train traveling at 70 miles per hour, it would have taken at least four hours to arrive at the derailment point, thus someone on a helicopter could have flown in with explosives to blow the connector, if necessary.

Near the beginning of the film, where a bus is stopped at a crossing, the crossbuck is lettered "Railway Crossing" while the standard US crossbucks have always been lettered "Railroad Crossing". The signs in the film are typical of Canadian crossings prior to the 1980s, when new standards were adopted and crossbucks have since remained unlettered.

The caboose is uncoupled from the train, but just before the train crashes, for a split second, the caboose can be seen still connected to the train.

An electromagnetic pulse can shut down electronics, but between 3 MHz and 30 MHz, it doesn't have the power to shut down everything in a major city.[citation needed]

The film's largest technical flaw involves the key plot point — accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon. Nuclear weapons are designed with mechanical and/or electrical safeguards to prevent unauthorized or accidental detonation. These mechanisms would have prevented the bomb from having a nuclear detonation. "Cook-off" of the conventional explosive components would be likely, but would not yield a nuclear explosion.[3][4]

Despite the film's technical flaws, it is well regarded in that all attempts to stop the train and rescue the town fail. This, at the time, broke typical last-minute rescue convention in television shows and movies. The train hit the town, the bomb exploded, and last ditch efforts went horribly awry.


  • Won the Golden Reel Award (2000) for "Best Sound Editing - Television Mini-Series - Effects and Foley"
  • Nominated for Golden Reel Award (2000) for "Best Sound Editing - Television Mini-Series - Dialogue and ADR"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "PART 232—Brake System Safety Standards for Freight and Other Non-Passenger Trains and Equipment; End-of-Train Devices". U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  2. ^ "PART 232—Brake System Safety Standards for Freight and Other Non-Passenger Trains and Equipment; End-of-Train Devices". U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  3. ^ "Principles of Nuclear Weapons Security and Safety". The Nuclear Weapon Archive. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 
  4. ^ "Nuclear Weapon Design". Federation of American Scientists. Archived from the original on 7 May 1999. Retrieved 13 August 2014. 

External links[edit]