Sometimes there is no alternative (or those in charge claim there is no alternative) but to allow the train to derail or crash, even if the passengers aboard are killed. Usually this may result in Stuff Blowing Up.
The defining characteristic of this trope is that the train is out of control or can't be stopped. Emperor of the North, where Ernest Borgnine as Shack tells the engineer not to stop the train even though there's a danger of a crash if they don't make the siding before the oncoming express, is not an example in this case; the engineer could stop the train.
The semi-unrealism with this trope is that the majority of locomotives in the world have some form of a Dead Man Switch. If a certain handle in the driver's cabin isn't depressed constantly when the train is moving or if no positive action showing an alert operator is detected within a set time period, the emergency brakes will come on. Moreover many trains also are equipped with some sort of speed control device that will apply the brakes automatically if an overspeed condition is detected.
In addition, since the 1870s, all trains have used a failsafe air braking system; when the braking lines are pressurised, the brakes are released, the absence of pressure applies the brakes. Therefore, a sudden loss of pressure inside the braking system or an individual carriage getting severed from the rest of the train will cause the brakes to automatically grind everything to a halt. If you're lucky, you'll get a Hand Wave about how something has disabled these failsafes but don't count on it.
The fail safety in train air brakes can itself fail if through all of the braking air is used up, though this can only really happen through improper train handling proceedure. Also, the air brakes on non-powered rolling stock can be easily deactivated (bottled) or disabled (bled), allowing the cars to move on their own under force of gravity and friction in certain situations. Fortunately the safety systems and operating procedures remove the potential for runaways except in the presence of negligence or intentional sabotage.
Expect a to see a lot of these trains in desert valleys heading for an unfinished bridge or even a cliff, despite it making absolutely zero sense why these trains would've been on partially-completed/dead-end tracks even before they went haywire.
See Also Dead Foot Leadfoot. If the Failsafe Failure isn't justified, then this may also be a case of Just Train Wrong.
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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.
In The Adventures of 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.
The track incidentally is 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.
The Reluctant Dragon featured 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.
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.
Batman Begins: "I won't kill you... but I don't have to save you."
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.
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 that has been rigged to blow when the train crosses it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 featured a Runaway Monorail in one episode, rendered brakeless by it's 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 CartoonsBillion 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.
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, and then it eventually rams into Sheriff Piglet's speeding handcar and blows up.
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).
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.
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 wreakage showed that the dead mans 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 travelled 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.
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 desision 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.
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.
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 "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.