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Film / Atomic Train

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Atomic Train is a made-for-television Disaster Movie about a train transporting explosive chemicals and, as the name suggests, an atomic bomb put there by smugglers the night before. By coincidence, the train's brakes fail, and it's up to John Seger (Rob Lowe), an NTSB agent, teaming up with Wally Phister (John Finn), a train operator, to prevent the disaster of the train crashing and the bomb exploding in Denver, the train's destination.

The film has gained a cult following with railfans due to the film's Runaway Train theme.


This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Artistic License – Geography: Near the beginning of the film, where a school bus stalls on a grade 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.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics:
    • The atomic bomb is triggered when Sodium metal explodes due to helicopter pilots extinguishing it by water. In real life, 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. This is then topped of by people running in nuclear fallout like it is snow.
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    • 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
  • Citywide Evacuation: Mostly standard, with the special event as disaster approaches being militia fanatic group taking control of a gas station. The bomb detonated while the evacuation was in progress.
  • EMP: The aftermath of bomb is none of the modern cars are working.
  • Fatal Family Photo: Averted. The train operator leaves the train with John.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: After an attempt to slow down the train was successful, an another train behind them trying to help it collides with it, not only undoing all the work, but also causing a man to fall out on the rails before the second train. The camera doesn't show the moment he is hit.
  • Just Train Wrong: The film is notorious for this. Here are some of the more notable examples:
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Almost all railway cars and locomotives have handbrakes for one, more or all axles. 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.
    • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The train trying to help the runaway one accidentally collides with it after it successfully slows down because they notice it too late, undoing all the work in the process.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: The film opens with a sequence somewhere in Texas featuring a freight train's brakes having difficulty working, just as it's heading toward a school bus full of children stalled on a railroad crossing. Most of the kids get out of the bus, but the driver, a bus monitor and a small girl are still on board, as the girl is trying to retrieve her doll. Fortunately, the bus moves off the tracks at the last second, and all the train hits is the open back door, knocking it off the bus. This scene however has no relation to the main story and is not brought up again, except perhaps to set the scene that trains are unreliable and accident-prone.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: One group calling themselves the Colorado Free People's Militia takes over a gas station and charges an exorbitant $20 for a gallon of gas to panicked civilians trying to evacuate Denver (for reference, average gas prices in the United States during the mid-to-late 90's flirted to just under $1/gallon).
  • Runaway Train: The film's premise.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The helicopter pilots. They don't bother to listen to instructions given to them to extinguish the fire, simply fetching water in nearby lake because "it's better than nothing". Unfortunately, this doesn't lead only to their deaths, but also the Reuben's and by extension Noris' and basically everyone dying in Denver because of bomb exploding.