Eddie: Hey, Barstow. Why don't you stop her? You put the system in. Cost the company 4.5 million.A train of some kind is on an out-of-control (or apparently out-of-control) trip to disaster (or at the minimum, expensive damage.) Attempts to stop the train or prevent disaster consist of:
Barstow: Listen, Eddie. This system is designed for the efficient dispatching of trains when manned, not to stop them when they're unmanned. The brake shoes have burned off. The over-speed control must have gotten screwed up from the collision!
Barstow: Listen, Eddie. This system is designed for the efficient dispatching of trains when manned, not to stop them when they're unmanned. The brake shoes have burned off. The over-speed control must have gotten screwed up from the collision!
- Attempting to get from the passenger (or cargo) cars to the engine
- Attempting to rescue the passengers, possibly by helicopter
- Attempting to cut the train, disconnecting the passenger cars (uncoupling the train will activate the air brakes, causing them to stop)
- Rerouting the train onto an unused siding so it will crash in an unoccupied area
- Using another train to slow down the train, or to put someone on it who may be able to slow it down
- Turning a switch to force the train on a short track so it will derail
- Using superpowers
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Anime & Manga
- In the 6th Digimon movie, Digimon Tamers: The Runaway Digimon Express, the Tamers are faced with stopping (Gran)Locomon when the train Digimon appears during Ruki's birthday party.
- In Honoo No Alpen Rose, a bridge in the frontier between Austria and Switzerland is severely damaged. The train in which the main characters travelled was able to barely stop, but there was another coming towards them at full speed. Jeudi and Lundi help as much as they can to get the other train to stop... but there's an explosion and Lundi disappears. Jeudi has to go to Austria on her own, thinking that Lundi is missing and possibly dead. He survived but barely, and they're not reunited until several chapters later.
- There's one in the sixth Detective Conan movie, The Phantom of Baker Street. Conan ends up fighting Jack the Ripper in a Traintop Battle.
- Superman, naturally, has prevented a lot of these in his career, being more powerful than a locomotive.
- In Tintin in America, Tintin steals a locomotive to catch up with the express train the villain has taken, and discovers that the brakes don't work. In Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin and Haddock are suspiciously placed alone on the last coach of a Peruvian train. The coach comes detached from the rest of the train, and the emergency brake doesn't work.
- Don Rosa's The Three Caballeros Ride Again has the trio fighting a villain on the flatcars of a train when the driver detaches the flatcars in order to save himself. Once they've defeated the villain, they remember that the other direction of the track is incomplete, and indeed ends right at the edge of a huge cliff. Incidentally, the track is a real one, completed in the early 1960's. Unfortunately for the protagonists, all Rosa's comics are set in the 1950's.
- Rogue stops one of these in a 1980s issue of X-Men, with an ambiguous degree of help from fellow X-Man Longshot, who she grabs and drops aboard the train in the hope that his powers of fabulous luck might help things turn out in her favor.
- In Danger Girl: The Chase, Abbey attempts to escape by leaping on to a passing train. The bad guys employ knockout gas that renders the crew unconscious, leaving Abbey on a runaway train.
- In a 2017 issue of Ms. Marvel (2014), Kamala has to deal with a runaway train after its brakes are taken out by some kind of power surge. It's only doing about 25mph, which she notes is hardly "action move" speed, but she doesn't have the level of Super Strength to stop it by herself and the emergency brake would make the whole thing crash. Upon realizing it's a slow-motion trainwreck waiting to happen, she grumbles about it being an on-the-nose metaphor for her whole life.
Films — Animation
- Anastasia has one of these, thanks to green glowy devil thingies. And of course, our heroes survive, and the train plunges off a damaged trestle into a gorge and explodes spectacularly due to all the crates of dynamite. Right after, Dimitri says "I HATE trains. Remind me never to get on a train again!"
- Seen in the beginning of Toy Story 3, where Woody tries to stop a driverless train but fails. Cue Buzz catching the train as is falls off a bridge
- The Reluctant Dragon features a passenger train (which would later make a reappearance in Dumbo) attempting to jump a broken bridge in a thunderstorm at one point, but ends up in a railway accident just because of this.
- The movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action has one, but it was deliberate and an attempt to run over the hero's father tied onto the tracks, but eventually the train hits some dynamite and blows up.
- The Scooby-Doo made-for-video movie Scooby Doo Frankencreepy has the Transylvania Express rendered a runaway by the main villain, complete with Stuff Blowing Up among derailing (but the gang and the rest of the passengers survive.)
- Zootopia has an old runaway subway car that plays out this trope (the villains have been using it as a hideout/laboratory.) Nick and Judy are able to successfully reroute the subway car to avoid colliding head-on with a speeding freight train, but the car ends up derailing and exploding when it tips from speeding on a curve and reaches the end of the line. Played more realistically in that the train does have a proper Dead Man Switch; Nick is stuck more-or-less stationary keeping the train going, requiring Judy to protect Nick, the subway car, and herself.
- The Polar Express becomes a runaway on glacier gulch when the throttle lever breaks off.
Films — Live-Action
- In Atomic Train, a runaway freight train carrying hazardous materials, including an old nuclear bomb. The cause of being a runaway? An air hose breaks and then the train's brakes become useless (in real life, this wound automatically apply the emergency brakes and stop the train, but this film is full of errors and continuity goofs!), causing it to speed up towards Denver. They try all the old "how to stop a runaway train" bits, but to no avail, even though no one even gave a thought on uncoupling the freight cars from the locomotives. Eventually they set a derail at a sharp curve, and inevitably, the train crashes and the atomic bomb explodes, destroying Denver! Oops.
- Back to the Future Part III has one deliberately set up my Dr. Brown and Marty, as an out-of-control train is the only way to get the crippled DeLorean up to 88 mph. The point where the train goes from a controlled time-travel experiment to a runaway is when they notice Clara has snuck on board, and the train is going too fast to stop before reaching the gorge with the incomplete bridge.
- The bad guys in Batman Begins attempt to poison Gotham City by sending an uncontrolled monorail train, which carries a device that supposed to cause fear-inducing gas spew everywhere, towards Gotham's central water source.
- In Breakheart Pass, the carriages containing the troopers are uncoupled from the train and rolls out of control down a steep section of track. They eventually derail and kill all the troopers.
- The Cassandra Crossing, where a biological agent is accidentally released on a train, the military take over the train and are under strict orders to take it to a quarantine site, but the track goes across a dilapidated bridge which might not sustain the load. Watch for O.J. Simpson in the role of an Interpol Police officer.
- Disaster on the Coastliner is a Made-for-TV film where a man takes over the engineer's console of a passenger train running from Los Angeles to San Francisco, locks the other train running from San Francisco to Los Angeles on the same track, and has both hijacked the LA-Bound train's radio to come into his phone so the engineer thinks he's calling the control center, and sabotaged the computer system at the railroad control center so they can't switch the signals to red so the unaware engineer would stop his train. The man taking over the first train is using the threat of an unstoppable wreck to blackmail the president of the railroad (Raymond Burr) who was unaware of the misconduct, to publicly admit that the railroad killed his wife due to negligence and intentionally bribed the inspector who investigated the accident into saying it wasn't the railroad's fault.
- Final Run has a state-of-the-art computer controlled train malfunction and is in danger of crashing into a hospital.
- Happens in a sequence in Heroic Trio when a bad guy takes over a train station as bait for the heroes.
- The Legend of Frenchie King: because of the titular bandit's shenanigans, Maria has to stop a runaway train in a scene that establishes her badassery.
- Both major Traintop Battles in The Lone Ranger end up taking place on top of runaway trains. Being set in 1869, this movie gets a pass on the whole Dead Man Switch issue.
- In Money Train, two guys who are transit police are robbing the train that collects all the fare collections, and bleed the airbrakes so that central control can't force-stop the train.
- The final showdown between Ki-su and the villain that has been tormenting him throughout Quick takes place on board a runaway train that is racing towards a bridge that has been rigged to blow when the train crosses it.
- The premise of the Canadian NFB short Runaway.
- Runaway Train, where the engineer has a heart attack and falls off the train, leaving only two stowaway convicts and an innocent woman aboard. It makes a touch more sense in that the "train" in this case is just a set of 4 locomotives with no cars attached; and though the brakes DO come on, the engines easily generate more pulling power than the brakes can stop resulting in them burning off after a few miles.
- Silver Streak, where a sociopath trying to steal a fortune through faked documentation of art, has disabled the emergency brakes and is pointing the train toward downtown Chicago.
- Speed had a runaway metro at the end; Speed 2: Cruise Control had a runaway boat that was played like this trope.
- In Spider-Man 2, Dr. Octopus sends a train on a runaway course. "I believe you have a train to catch." At least Doc is a physicist and engineer (he built his cybernetic arms) and is seen doing specific damage to the controls.
- One of the sequences in Sucker Punch has the girls attempting to steal a nuclear bomb guarded by robots off a runaway train.
- In The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the hijackers disable the safety features and create a runaway subway train to cover their getaway, hoping the police will assume they died in the inevitable wreck.
- The New York Subway's safety systems eventually stop the train without harm however, implying it was just meant as a distraction while they escaped.
- In Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, terrorists have taken over a passenger train in which they've mounted a satellite control system that can trigger earthquakes.
- The entire plot of Unstoppable. Very Loosely Based on a True Story, namely the "Crazy Eights" incident mentioned below. The plot of the movie is that the brakes on train 777 work, however the deadman switch is disabled due to other brakes not working, and there's nobody aboard to stop the train which has been set to full throttle causing it to blast across the rails at 70 miles an hour, is carrying dangerous chemicals, and is headed towards a residential area. In addition to trying to slow it down by coupling to it from the rear, certain things go awry such as a train derailer failing due to the weight and speed of the train. While many of these details are exaggerated for television (for example, nobody died in the real incident), certain things are true such as the train derailer failing to stop the train and that the train was carrying very dangerous chemicals.
- Ra One has part of the climax take place on a train being temporarily helmed by the Brainwashed and Crazy heroine.
- The Dark Tower has a suicidal AI speeding a train to runaway doom. The ka-tet of gunslingers can only save themselves by matching wits in a riddle game.
- The Reverend W. Awdry's The Railway Series features several incidents of runaway trains, mostly involving a steep incline, due to either a broken coupling on a train going uphill or the weight of the train overcoming the force of the brakes heading downhill. Justified as the trains in question didn't have automatic braking systems, only handbrakes on individual vehicles.
- There is also an incident of a runaway train caused by children interfering with the controls. As with all incidents in the series, this was based on a similar real life occurrence. The train is caught when an inspector on another engine hurls a lasso around the train and catches it, allowing the fireman to jump over to apply the brake.
- In Kim Newman's story "The Greek Invertebrate" (in the collection The Hound of the D'Urbervilles), Professor Moriarty and Colonel Moran are aboard the "Kallinikos", which becomes an example of this.
- Dreadnought. The armoured train Dreadnought is racing at full speed to keep ahead of the much-faster Confederate train Shenandoah, which is on a parallel line. When the latter pulls ahead everyone realises that the Shenandoah could use its guns to blow up the tracks ahead and derail the Dreadnought killing everyone on board, so they need to stop the train. Unfortunately the Dreadnought is so heavy and powerful that even with every brake applied in the locomotive and every carriage there's still a question as to whether it will stop in time.
- In Seanan McGuire 's short story One Hell Of A Ride, the train on which the protagonists are traveling crosses through some dimension hole straight into hell ... or, as Jonathan helpfully explains, not quite hell, but some other circle of the underworld. Unusual in that the train stopping would be the worst thing that could happen - they need it to keep going to have a chance at returning to our world.
- Disaster on the Coastliner, a Made-for-TV Movie about a man who sets up a train that can't be stopped, to get the president of the railroad to admit he committed some criminal acts that caused the man's wife to die.
- An episode of Little House on the Prairie featured a runaway train with children on board.
- Played almost perfectly straight in one of the later (and far sillier) episodes of seaQuest DSV, with a trans-atlantic mag-lev. Underwater. They even had to get it to jump the tracks...
- In the Roseanne episode Roseambo, a gang of women-hating terrorists taken an Amtrak train hostage and deliberately render it a runaway so it will eventually derail and kill everyone on board. Roseanne comes to the rescue, defeating the terrorists and having her friends and family jump off the train, but right before she can go down with the train off a cliff ("That carnival psychic was right!" she wails), she is rescued at the last second by an FBI helicopter with a tire swing. As the entire train blows up underneath her, she yells "Cleanup on aisle four!" It is not mentioned if anyone else was on board the train at the time it crashed (though it is likely the other terrorists were still on the train at the explosion.)
- Dad's Army used this trope in one episode. The unit had to move a train out the way of an incoming one after the drivers got drunk, but ended up with a runaway train after it turned out they'd left the brake wheel back at the station and that the line was all downhill from that point. Cue Captain Mainwaring climbing over the train roof, the warden, vicar and verger on a handcart trying to bring them the brake wheel and then them having to go damn fast the other way after the platoon accidentally put the train into reverse.
- Due South did this in 'All The Queen's Horses'. The brake was tampered with, and Buck Frobisher used a rifle shot he and Bob called "The great Yukon double Douglas Fir telescoping bank shot" to nail the switch and force the train onto an empty track before it could hit an oncoming train carrying nuclear material.
- CSI: Cyber: In "CMND:\Crash", the bad guy hacks the computer on a subway train and disengages all of the safeguards. The Cyber team has to work out how to board the runaway train and shut it down before it reaches the end of the line.
- The climax of the NCIS: Los Angeles episode "The Livelong Day" is built on this trope. And just to make it more dire, there's a bomb on the track.
- The Scorpion episode, "Crazy Train" deals with the team having to figure out how to stop a runaway subway train that Paige and Ralph are on.
- In Episodes 3 and 4 of the Taiwanese action drama Black and White, Gao Yi, having gone full bore psycho through regular use of his own drug Dreamer, hijacks a subway train, disables the remote brake system and disables everyone by means of releasing the drug into the vent system. It's up to Wu Ying Xiong and Pi Zi to stop the train before it crashes and kills everyone on board.
- AC/DC: "...Running right off the track!"
- "The Runaway Train Came Over The Hill, and She Blew..."
- "Runaway Train" by Roseanne Cash, a No. 1 country hit in 1988; used metaphorically to describe an illicit love affair that is spiraling out of control.
- "Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum reached number 5 in 1993 and is used as a metaphor for runaway children/teens.
- "Locomotive Breath" by Jethro Tull seems to take place on a runaway train, though, similar to the Roseanne Cash example, it's metaphorically used to describe a man having a nervous breakdown.
- "J.C. Cohen" by Allen Sherman (a parody of "The Ballad of Casey Jones") is a song about a conductor on a runaway New York subway train. The train eventually ends up at the North Pole.
- Two songs by English Folk musician Dave Goulder concern this...
- In "The Man who put the Engine in the Chip Shop", a cleaner fiddles with the controls of a locomotive, which sets off on its own after the steam pressure. After much damage, it runs off the end of a siding, up a town's high street, and into a fish and chip shop.
- "The Day we run away" features an overloaded coal train losing control on a steep descent. It runs out of momentum when it reaches the bottom of the hill, and arrives safely at its destination. This is apparently Truth in Television; coal trains at that time were overloaded and runaway trains simply had the route ahead cleared for them so they could use up all their momentum.
- "Blood on the Coal" by The Folksmen (the folk incarnation of Spinal Tap). As all folk bands have a song abut either a mine disaster or train wreck, the Folksmen decided to combine them by having a song about a runaway train in a mine. The song features on the soundtrack of A Mighty Wind (although it predates the movie).
- The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the various Disney Theme Parks. Depending on the place, the story is usually something along the lines of some sort of possessed/ghostly runaway trains that continued to run after a disaster of some sort hit the area.
- The two former Universal Studios Florida attractions, Earthquake: The Big One and Disaster! featured an out-of-control subway train nearly colliding with the riders in the attractions' finales.
- Our heroes try to stop one in Final Fantasy VII that's carrying a piece of Huge Materia.
- A sort of reverse example occurs in Jak 3: Wastelander, where the player must start a runaway train full of explosives(!) and clear its path so that it crashes into a blocked gateway which must be opened.
- One of the original optional Grand Theft Auto missions works with this trope. It also has a bomb on board.
- One of these show up in Resident Evil 0, where the Ecliptic Express is rerouted onto a dead-end track by Birkin and Wesker so that it will crash. Naturally, stopping it requires solving a math problem on two different computer terminals found on opposite ends of the train before you're allowed to pull the brake. The train still derails. Similar situations happened earlier in Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, the latter with a cable car.
- A similar thing is the concept of Blast Corps, but instead of a runaway train, they have a truck set on an automated course. A truck with nukes.
- One of these is created as part of an escape plan in Grandia. The heroes lure the villains into the train engine, where they had stoked up the fire really high and then broke the brakes. Then they detached the passenger cares, trapping the villains in the engine. While nobody was hurt, by the time the engine had slowed down enough for the villains to safely leave, they were too far away to be an immediate threat.
- The ending of Total Overdose, after missiles destroy the train trestle. The train can't be saved, but Ram can rescue his de-Actioned Love Interest from her bondage at the front of it.
- The entire plot of the Sinclair Spectrum game Stop the Express.
- Star Fox 64 features in an interesting inversion; the point of the Macbeth level is to destroy the train carrying weapons. You can do this two ways. 1) you can destroy the train itself, or 2) you can flip a series of switches that causes the train to change tracks and run right into the weapons factory. Throughout the level, the train's engineer has been increasing its speed, so by that point it's Too Fast to Stop.
- In World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, player characters board a goblin-engineered train in the Grimrail Depot instance. After the final boss fight is aced, the players sabotage the train and cause it to derail.
- In Syphon Filter 2, Gabe Logan escapes the mountain on a freight train, but the Agency blows up the trestle dead ahead, and with not enough distance to stop the train, Lian Xing has to airlift him with a stolen chopper before the train crashes.
- The Team Fortress 2 fan-film "End of the Line" has the BLU Team sending a runaway train laden with explosives hurtling towards the RED Team's base.
- One episode of Johnny Test where Johnny and Duke took up full-time superheroics featured not less than five of these over the course on one episode, including two on a collision course. Dukey lampshades this by the fourth one.
- The Simpsons episode "Marge vs. the Monorail" features a Runaway Monorail, rendered brakeless by its laughably cheap construction quality. Someone suggests cutting the power when the brakes don't work. Another person says they can't because it's solar powered. Bitterly, he says, "Solar power. When will people learn?"
- In the old Superman Theatrical Cartoons Billion Dollar Limited by Fleischer Studios, the Billion Dollar Limited train carrying a huge amount of gold to the mint is rendered a runaway when the bad guys manage to toss the engineers out of the locomotive. Attempts to reroute the train into a freight car full of dynamite and to send it off a damaged bridge are foiled by Superman, but he is unable to retrieve a bomb tossed into the locomotive by the bad guys, so he manages to save Lois in the nick of time before the boiler explodes and the now-totaled locomotive derails. He then pulls the cargo cars of gold the rest of the way to the mint by himself. (Guess he really was more powerful than a locomotive.)
- On X-Men: Evolution the Brotherhood create accidents so they can save the day. Their final act is trying to stop a runaway train. They leave after being reminded that there is a second train that will cause a collision.
- Seen in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the episode "Bebop and Rocksteady Conquer the Universe", when Bebop and Rocksteady's attempt to tie Master Splinter to the railroad tracks goes horribly wrong thanks to Rocksteady pulling out the brake lever. They wind up rerouting the train via a switch so it doesn't run over Splinter, but instead it hits a runaway dinosaur robot and blows up, completely derailing in the process.
- Episode 15 of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated ("The Wild Brood") features one, complete with a knocked-out engineer, broken bridge and exploding locomotive (also a shout-out to the train fight and wreck scenes in Back to the Future Part III.
- The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh episode "The Good, The Bad and the Tigger" featured an Old West variation of this trope, in a near episode-length fantasy. The accused train robbers Tigger and Pooh (both of whom apparently "borrowed" the train, mirroring them borrowing Christopher Robin's toy train in real life) wind up rendering the train a runaway, mostly due to Tigger fooling around with the controls in the locomotive. Pulling all the levers and switches doesn't stop the train, pressing the brake only results in the train flipping over and going the other direction, and then it eventually rams into Sheriff Piglet's speeding handcar and blows up, but nobody dies. Later Pooh and Tigger try to put the train back together, but the train comes to life and start zooming around the town without any rails and Piglet ends up stuck on the front of the train. Tigger paints fake tracks on the ground, under the logic that trains can't resist following tracks and then decides to wait for the train to run out of steam. Several days later the train is still going so Tigger causes it to crash with a banana peal, and Piglet is ok.
- As with the literature it's based on, the Thomas the Tank Engine show uses this a lot, having its own distinct theme music, being an Oh, Crap! moment for the engine in question and usually ending in a crash of some kind. In earlier seasons, these crashes were reasonably realistic, though in the later seasons, the crashes were either less violent (the seventh season episode "The Spotless Record" defies the Laws of Physics) or much more severe (the sixth season episode "Gordon Takes a Tumble" features Gordon coming off the tracks, and crashing into a hay pile, and pile of tires, and a farm house, before coming to rest; through the entire sequence, he never lost speed AT ALL).
- MAD, in one of their signature crossover parodies, combines Thomas the Tank Engine with Unstoppable.
- Color Classics: "Play Safe! Play Safe!"
- In the Pound Puppies (2010) episode "The Ruff Ruff Bunch", Lucky's team must stop a train in which the episode's eponymous club is on after the train's conductor was accidentally knocked unconscious.
- Adventure Time: At the end of "Mystery Train", Finn accidentally smashes the controls of the locomotive, resulting in the train running out of control towards a broken bridge.
- Thunderbirds Are Go: International Rescue have to stop a runaway experimental train in "Runaway".
- Totally Spies!: Clover and Sam have to stop a runaway train they get trapped on due to one of Lumiere's riddles in "A Spy is Born 2".
- Boo Boom! The Long Way Home: the Series Finale involves one of these. Boo-Boom and his friends have to stop a train transporting prisoners, including Boo-Booms' parents. They do so by unhooking the carriages that contain the prisoners. Unfortunately, since the train was going up a mountain at the time, the now unhooked carriages immediately go back down again, straight for a blown up bridge, forcing the heroes to come up with a way to stop them before the carriages reach the ravine. They succeed by deploying the brakes of a tank that was also being transported by the same train.
- In one episode of Adventures in Odyssey Dylan and a deaf kid named Eliot end up on a train with the train's driver having fallen out of the train. Whit calls them on the train's phone to give them instructions on how to stop the train, but Dylan accidentally breaks the phone, so Whit has to shout the instructions at them from his flying vehicle. Dylan isn't able to understand him, but Eliot somehow does and they manage slow down the train enough that it only gently bumps the train in front of it. Eliot later explains that he was reading Whit's lips.
- A real-life incident happened in Australia when the driver of a commuter train suffered an apparent heart attack and died. He didn't fall out of his seat, and was heavy enough that the weight of his leg kept enough pressure on the pedal which controlled the dead-man's switch to prevent it from tripping by release, but not enough pressure to trip it by too much pressure, causing the train to go out of control and crash. The accident resulted in the addition of a second switch, a button that has to be pressed every 30 seconds to prevent the emergency brake from stopping the train automatically.
- Crews had also been known to cheat the deadman footpedal by jamming a flag stick (of coincidentally perfect length) between the underside of the control desk and the footpedal, although there was no evidence that this was the case in the abovementioned crash. Needless to say that sort of thing is a rather career-limiting maneuver these days.
- Other railway systems have also had incidents related to disabling deadman systems. Given many hours with little to occupy the mind, people will come up with many ingenious ways to bypass things that they find inconvenient (and most deadman safety systems, whilst crucially important, are inconvenient in some way or another).
- Back in the early 1900s, an Electric Train collided with another near Newcastle. The body of the driver was found some distance further down the track, and examination of the wreckage showed that the dead man's handle of the train had been tied down. Speculation is that the driver was leaning out of the train to spy on a young couple in the compartment behind the cab, and was struck by a bridge and knocked from the train, which then continued driverless before coming to a halt.
- A significant cause of runaway trains throughout history has been the failure to apply parking brakes on stabled trains when they are on a gradient. After a time the air will leak from the brakes and they will release. Other than for moving between cabs, a train should never be left unattended without sufficient parking brakes applied, and will usually be chocked when left for longer periods. Some trains have parking brakes that automatically apply if the air pressure falls below a certain level (usually using a powerful spring to apply the parking brake which is held off by air pressure).
- Another similar problem occurs with modern trains. Many have none fail safe electrically operated brakes, backed up by a failsafe direct system. If these are left unattended with just the electrically operated brake in use, a failure of this can cause a runaway. Drivers must therefore always use a failsafe method of securing the train whenever they are leaving them unattended.
- Another cause of runaway trains can be the failure to properly connect the brake pipes when trains are being formed, leading to part of the train being unbraked (in extreme cases the entire train other than the locomotive). A simple error is to connect the pipes but to leave the isolating valves closed. To guard against this a brake continuity test should be carried out to make sure the brake is correctly operating along the whole train. This is done by opening the brake pipe at the back of the train and observing a reduction in brake pressure at the front. In many countries drivers are also required to carry out a running brake test to make sure that the brakes operate as they should, usually whenever a driver takes over a train (also allows them to get a feel for the brakes on the particular train).
- In the past many trains were not continuously power braked, being brakes on leading vehicles only, or just the locomotive. This could often lead to runaways on falling gradients if insufficient brake power was available to slow or stop the train or the train traveled at too high speed. Freight trains were often unbraked or partially braked until quite recently (as late as the 1970s in the UK). On long falling gradients is was often required for the train to stop to allow the crew to manually apply parking brakes on some wagons to prevent the train running away on the hill. Runaways could easily occur if this was forgotten.
- The failure of couplings on an unbraked train climbing a hill would also lead to a runaway as the coaches would roll away backwards with nothing to stop them. It was normal practice to provide catch points or derailers which were designed to derail or divert a train that was running away backwards in these circumstances before a serious accident occurred. Unbraked trains also used a brake van at the rear of the train, both to provide additional braking power in normal use and to allow the rear portion of the train to be stopped if a coupling broke.
- Runaways due to inadequate brake power were the cause of what were probably the two worst rail accidents ever to occur in Western Europe.
- On 12th December 1917, a troop train carrying French soldiers on leave from the Italian front ran away down steep mountain gradients and derailed near the town of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, killing around 700 people. The train consisted of a single medium-sized steam locomotive and nineteen carriages, only three of which had air brakes. The driver had warned that the load was four times the safe limit for a single locomotive on such gradients, but was reportedly threatened with being shot there and then for disobeying orders by the officer in charge of the train. (He survived as the couplings broke when the train derailed and the locomotive stayed on the rails.)
- On 3rd January 1940, a Spanish express train which had continued in service despite reports of serious brake problems ran away down a mountain gradient and collided with an empty local train inside a tunnel at Torre del Bierzo. A freight train travelling in the other direction then struck the pile of wreckage. Although the official death toll was only 78, recent researches have suggested that the authoritarian Franco regime covered up the full magnitude, and that over 500 people may have died.
- A particularly tragic runaway train accident was the Armagh rail disaster in 1889 where a train carrying children on a Sunday school outing stalled climbing a steep hill. The decision was made to divide the train and take the front portion forward, collecting the rear portion later. Although the train was fully braked the brakes were not failsafe so once the locomotive and front portion of the train were uncoupled the rear portion would be unbraked and roll down the hill. As no handbrakes were available either, the crew secured the rear of the train by placing a number of stones behind the wheels. This was effective, but sadly as the front portion started to move it rolled back into the rear portion with enough force to crush the stones, the rear of the train then rolling free down the hill until it collided with a following train. 78 were killed, 260 injured, mostly children. This accident caused such shock and outrage that it lead to massive changed to rail safety in the UK, requiring continuous automatic brakes on all passenger trains, and also improvements to signalling. The accident is seen as the beginning of the modern era in UK rail safety.
- A train in Ohio left its station in Toledo without a conductor in May 2001 and went on a 66-mile runaway race, until an engineer was able to jump onto the engine and stop it. This incident, known as "Crazy Eights" due to the train's number, inspired the film Unstoppable, mentioned above. As if that wasn't enough, the train was carrying hazardous chemicals.
- In the 1950s in the UK, a train of empty coaches was approaching its destination when the driver realised the hard way that the couplings were connected, but not the brake pipes. Nobody was injured, but the damage bill was probably quite expensive.
- Also from the 1950s in the UK: a train from Buxton was approaching Dove Holes summit when a steam pipe burst in the cab, forcing the crew to evacuate and leaving the train, with brakes off and regulator still open, to accelerate under power down the other side of the hill. The fireman jumped off, but the driver, with nerves of steel, hung on to the outside, trying to reach in and knock the regulator closed. He failed, and was killed when the train crashed into the back of the one in front. He was awarded the George Cross for his heroism and later a modern locomotive was named "Driver John Axon GC" in his honour.
- The vast majority of fatal rail accidents avert this trope, as they occur because a train that isn't out of control still takes a considerable time to stop. A stalled, reckless, or suicidal driver on the tracks can thus be run down because they're not spotted until it's too late for a train's brakes to prevent the collision.
- In Philadelphia, two cars from a powered-down passenger train somehow became uncoupled from the others, and rolled down the tracks for several blocks with two SEPTA rail employees aboard. Unable to activate the brakes with the power off, they had no way to stop the cars; fortunately, an uphill slope brought them to a halt before they encountered any obstacles.
- The San Bernardino train disaster in 1989: An overloaded train didn't have enough braking power to slow itself when descending a long grade into the town of San Bernardino, derailed, and destroyed several houses. Then two weeks later the gasoline pipeline that ran parallel to the tracks, and was damaged during the cleanup, ruptured, spraying gasoline over the surviving houses in the neighbourhood, and then caught fire.
- The Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec, Canada in 2013. A train carrying a highly volatile form of crude oil was left running with insufficient brakes at the top of a hill and the engine was threatening to break down under the strain, so a technician was sent to shut off the locomotive. However, this ended up causing the air brakes to lose pressure, and the train rolled downhill into the town and derailed when it hit a curve. The tanker cars full of crude oil caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people (including 5 that went missing and are presumed to have been vaporized by the explosion) and leveling most of the buildings in the town's centre. It was the deadliest rail accident in Canada since the country was formed in 1867.
- The "trolley problem" is one of the philosophers' stock examples of an ethical dilemma: If five people are about to be killed by a runaway trolley, and the only way to stop them is to push a fat man in front of the trolley, would you kill the fat man to save the five, etc.