Runaway train

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A runaway train is a type of railroad incident in which unattended rolling stock is accidentally allowed to roll onto the main line, a moving train loses enough braking power to be unable to stop in safety, or a train operates at unsafe speeds due to loss of operator control. If the uncontrolled rolling stock derails or hits another train, it will result in a train wreck.

A railway air brake can fail if valves on the pipe between each wagon are accidentally closed; the 1953 Pennsylvania Railroad train wreck and the 1988 Gare de Lyon train accident were results of a valve accidentally closed by the crew, reducing braking power.

A parked train or cut of cars may also run away if not properly tied down with a sufficient number of hand brakes.


Accidents and incidents involving defective or improperly-set railway brakes include:

  • Cairo, Egypt (2019), a train engine crashed into a buffer stop at Egypt's busiest station. The fuel exploded with a large fireball killing 20 people and injured 40. It is alleged that the train driver left the brakes off, causing the train to roll and hit the buffer stop[1].
  • Port Hedland, Australia (2018), an iron ore train consisting of 4 locomotives and 268 wagons, operated by BHP Billiton on the Pilbara Railways, was deliberately derailed after travelling 92 km, after the driver went out to inspect. The train was en route from Newman to Port Hedland.[2]
  • Wadi, India (2017), an electric locomotive traveled without a driver for 13 kilometres (8.1 mi) after it was being swapped for a diesel locomotive to pull the train on a non-electrified section of track. Railway personnel chased after the locomotive by motorbike, and the train was stopped safely after 50 minutes.[3]
  • Landen, Belgium (2016), the driver left the cabin to do some check-ups on the train when it started moving. After 30 minutes and 12 km, the train was stopped by a driver who jumped into the train's cab. No one was injured nor did the train hit anything.[4]
  • Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, Quebec (2013), brakes were improperly set[5] on unattended parked crude oil train, runaway tank cars derailed on a curve in the centre of town, spilling five million litres of oil and causing fires which killed forty-seven people.
  • Ion Luca Caragiale village, Romania (2012), A freight train ran away from Lon Luca Caragiale Station because of the improper brakes setting and hit a Dacia car on a level crossing, killing 2 people [6]
  • Pretoria, Johannesburg, South Africa (2010), during a locomotive changeover, the carriages ran away out of control for 12 miles (19 km) until they derailed at Pretoria. 7 injuries and 3 deaths were reported with total damage to the carriages of about R15,000,000 (£1,338,000).
  • Congo-Kinshasa west of Kananga (2007) - 100 killed.[7]
  • On June 20, 2003, a cut of 31 freight cars rolled away after they were improperly secured and left unattended in a yard east of Los Angeles, CA, United States. Initial reports claimed there were 10 freight cars. The consist later derailed in Commerce at an estimated speed of 95 mph (153 km/h). 13 people suffered minor injuries.[8]
  • 2003 Melbourne runaway train – an empty suburban train runs 17 kilometres unattended before colliding with another train at Spencer Street railway station. 11 people are injured.
  • Igandu train disaster, Tanzania (2002) – runaway backwards - 281 killed.
  • Tenga rail disaster, Mozambique (2002) – runaway backwards - 192 killed.
  • CSX 8888 incident, 66 miles, Walbridge – Kenton, Ohio, United States (2001) - freight train ran away under power without a crew after engineer incorrectly set the locomotive's dynamic brake. The incident inspired the 2010 motion picture Unstoppable.[9]
  • San Bernardino train disaster, California (1989) - brakes failed on freight train which crashed into houses
  • New Brunswick, Canada March (1987) Canadian National ore train derailed. The engineer was in the second engine while the conductor was in the caboose back at the rail yard. There are recordings from dispatch available on YouTube.
  • Chester General rail crash, UK (1972) - brakes failed on fuel train which collided with parked DMU.
  • Jersey Central "ghost engine" incident, New Jersey (1959) - A single ALCO RS-3 locomotive of the Central Railroad of New Jersey left a terminal yard in Jersey City as a runaway and covered 22 miles in 36 minutes before it was stopped by a crewed locomotive on the tracks ahead. Incident suspected of being sabotage as throttle was open, air brakes set for running.[10]
  • Chapel-en-le-Frith, Great Britain (1957) – broken steam pipe made it impossible for crew to apply brakes.
  • Federal Express train wreck, Union Station, Washington, DC, (1953) - valve closed by badly designed bufferplate.
  • Torre del Bierzo rail disaster, Spain (1944) - brakes failed on an overloaded passenger train which collided with another in a tunnel; a third train was unaware and also crashed into it.
  • Asheboro, North Carolina (1898) - an Aberdeen and Asheboro Railroad crew uncouples a locomotive from a freight train without setting the brakes on the cars properly; the cars soon roll downhill to collide with the locomotive, pinning the engine crew.[11][12]
  • Montparnasse derailment, Paris, France (1895) - Granville–Paris Express overran the buffer stop at its Gare Montparnasse terminus when its air brakes failed, crashed through the entire station, and fell onto the Place de Rennes killing one woman; five on the train and one in the street were injured.
  • Armagh rail disaster, Northern Ireland (1889) – runaway backwards led to change in law.
  • Shipton-on-Cherwell train crash, Oxford, UK (1874) - caused by fracture of a carriage wheel.


  1. ^ {{cite web|url= Train Driver Left Brakes Off|date=28 February 2019
  2. ^ "BHP counts cost of runaway ore train derailment after suspending rail operations". 5 November 2018.
  3. ^ Mouneshwar Sonnad (9 November 2017). "Driver chases runaway engine on his bike, stops it after 13km".
  4. ^ "Belgian runaway train prompts alert". 2016-02-19.
  5. ^ Huffstutter, P.J. (8 July 2013). "Insight: How a train ran away and devastated a Canadian town". Reuters. Retrieved 9 July 2013.
  6. ^
  7. ^ "DR Congo crash toll 'passes 100'". BBC News. August 2, 2007. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  8. ^ " - Human error blamed for runaway train". June 26, 2003. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  9. ^ David Patch (November 12, 2010). "At times, 'Unstoppable' goes off track from reality". Toledo Blade.
  10. ^ ""Runaway Engine on the Main Line!"". Popular Science. October 1961. Retrieved September 23, 2018.
  11. ^ "A Wreck at Asheboro". The Charlotte Observer. Charlotte, NC. January 23, 1898. p. 8. Retrieved October 26, 2015 – via open access
  12. ^ Winston Daily Journal (January 27, 1898). "A Horrible Accident on the Asheboro & Aberdeen Railroad". Webster's Weekly. Reidsville, NC. p. 2. Retrieved October 26, 2015 – via open access

See also[edit]