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Track Trouble

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"His driver applied the brakes, but it was too late..."

"What bridge?"

If the track on which a train is supposed to run has been damaged or obstructed, any train running across it will be at best halted and at worst completely destroyed. Sometimes this happens by accident — a storm, flood, or other disaster might wash away a bridge or knock a tree across the line. Other times, there's a nefarious scheme at work — some villain sabotages the rails so as to wreck the next train that passes (or, in a downplayed version, simply to force it to stop). Either way, it has the potential to lead to a disaster, and makes our heroes' train trip more hazardous than they would like.

Often, the problem will not be noticed by the people on the train until too late — in order to save the day, it will be necessary to warn the driver somehow. The situation can be exacerbated if you've got a Runaway Train, since the train can't stop even if the danger is known. This is one of the main reasons Train Stopping by passing heroes is necessary.

A version of this will often feature in a Rollercoaster Mine. It can be part of a Train Job plot, and may be the cause of a Big Disaster Plot.

This is, of course, Truth in Television. Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of train accidents, many of which were caused by this.

Contrast Railroad Tracks of Doom and Chained to a Railway, where there's something on the track but the danger is not to the train. Not to be confused with departures from metaphorical rails (such as Derailed Train of Thought, Off the Rails, or Translation Train Wreck). Also not to be confused with a trouble in the soundtrack. Or a race track trouble.


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    Comic Books 
  • Green Lantern (1941): Alan Scott became the Green Lantern when the Starheart saved his life when a blown up bridge killed everyone else aboard the train he was on.
  • Lucky Luke: In "Jesse James", Jesse's gang pull one rail to the side to flip the train. One of them decides to improve on it by bending both tracks at a time, letting the train jump the tracks and coast to a stop in a nearby town (eliciting locals remarking they didn't know the railway was coming to their town and what this'll do to property prices).

    Film — Animation 
  • In Anastasia, Rasputin's goblin minions try to kill Anya first by detaching the train car she's in, then by destroying the bridge up ahead. While they do succeed in violently destroying the train, they fail at killing Anya and her friends.
    Dimitri: I HATE trains. Remind me never to get on a train again!
  • In Hoodwinked!, while the Wolf and Twitchy are riding a mine cart through the hills, they accidentally destroy part of a trestle after Twitchy mistakes some sticks of dynamite for candles. The resulting damage causes Red Puckett's cart right behind them to be sent flying into the air.
  • In The Incredibles, Mr Incredible has to stop a train before it reaches a destroyed section of track — which he does, although not without getting sued for injury by some of the passengers.
  • In The Iron Giant, the Giant pulls on some tracks just as the train approaches. Hogarth gets him to put the tracks back, but he takes too long and is hit by the train.
  • Bad Cop from The LEGO Movie blasts away a section of a railroad bridge where it crosses a tall canyon, willing to sacrifice the locomotive and all aboard in order to eradicate La Résistance. Fortunately, our heroes are quickly saved by Batman.
  • In Lucky Luke: Ballad of the Daltons, one of the people the Dalton brothers are trying to kill is a train driver, and they decide to accomplish it by derailing his train. Unfortunately for them, the train goes further than they expect when it leaves the rails, and Lucky Luke gets to it before they do. Luke tells them that the driver is dead, which isn't true.
  • In The Polar Express, the titular train ends up running away when the engineer accidentally shreds the Johnson Bar off. After running up and down Glacier Gulch uncontrollably, the Conductor spots over the horizon yet another worse hazard...
  • In Toy Story 3, the beginning of the skit involves One-Eyed Bart (Mr. Potato Head) destroying the train track and making his escape with Woody having to save the train full of orphans.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Back to the Future Part III has Marty journey back to 1885, seeking to avert Doc's death at the hands of Buford Tannen. However, gasoline isn't a readily available fuel, so the DeLorean needs to be accelerated to 88 mph by a steam locomotive. However, the spur that's used leads to an incomplete trestle over a canyon. There's even a Point of No Return where the DeLorean must attain 88 mph, or Marty will die trying.
  • Deakin blows the track in front of the train in order to stop it in Breakheart Pass. O'Brien is able to stop the train before it hits the damaged section. The outlaws and Indians are then set to work to pull up a section of track from behind the train and use it to replace the damaged track so O'Brien can get moving again.
  • At the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai the title bridge is destroyed by demolition charges, causing the Japanese military train trying to cross it to fall to its doom.
  • A critical plot point in The Cassandra Crossing, since the contaminated passenger train must cross it. The United States military knows the bridge is substandard, and subsequent shots of the bridge show increasing amounts of dereliction, rust and decay.
  • In Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, the giant Ivan Ooze breaks a monorail track, forcing Tommy to disengage from the battle in order to use his Zord as a temporary replacement for the missing section.
  • In The Reluctant Dragon, a short featuring Casey Junior (who would later appear in Dumbo) ends this way, when a heavy rain storm washes out a bridge. Casey tries to stop, but he instead jumps the chasm and wrecks on the other side, looking rather annoyed at his predicament.
  • In Superman: The Movie, an earthquake damages a rail line, necessitating Superman's intervention.
  • In The Titfield Thunderbolt, the track used by the so-named train is blocked by the bus company against which it competes.

  • In Cherie Priest's Dreadnought, the titular armoured train finds itself in a race against another train, not so much because they need to get to their destination first but because whichever train is ahead might be able to blow up the other's track. When the train does indeed have to apply its brakes, it only just manages to stop in time.
  • One of the main elements of children's book Pamela Camel. Pamela, running away from the circus, finds a broken track, and stands on the track to warn an oncoming train.
  • In the first book of The Pillars of Reality, the train on which Mari and Alain are travelling runs along the top of some coastal cliffs — parts of which turn out to have collapsed. It looks like it could be natural, but it actually deliberate sabotage to get rid of Mari and Alain.
  • In The Story of Casey Jr., a bridge breaks before the circus train can cross it. Luckily, Casey is able to jump across the gap with the entire train.

    Live Action TV 
  • Casey Jones may revolve around a well-run railroad, but even they can't avoid the occasional mishap.
    • Invoked in “Night Mail” by the Southern and Panhandle Railway, who stack wood on the tracks and try to shoot the Cannonball’s crew in an attempt to beat them in a race for a mail contract. The Cannonball just plows right through it. Then, the Cannonball crew invokes it themselves to pull up their own tracks and build a switch to connect to S&P tracks, allowing them to run behind their competitor’s train before switching onto an old army spur.
    • “Prison Train” has both a trestle destroyed and a set of rails pulled up by thieves trying to steal gold bullion from the Cannonball.
    • “The Old Timer”: Heavy rainstorms wash out the trestle, and would have nearly derailed the Cannonball if Redrock hadn’t risked his life to flag it down.
    • “Night Run” invokes this via Mother Nature, who unleashes a fierce storm that destroys a damn and floods everything in its path. Though the Cannonball narrowly avoids getting washed out, other parts of the network are destroyed by the raging flood.
    • “The Trackwalker”: A boulder falls onto the line, and the Cannonball would have nearly hit it had it not been for a passerby flagging them down.
    • “Star Witness”: A gang of seven called “The Workers Ring,” as part of an attempts to get control of the workers union, deliberately invokes this somehow by staging a train collision during a worker’s strike.
    • Averted in “The Dark Rider.” Fearful citizens of a town plant dynamite along the trestle when they learn the Cannonball has a passenger with smallpox aboard. If they try to cross, they’ll blow up the trestle, but they never do, and the train reverses onto a siding instead to wait for a vaccine and avoid an oncoming express.
    • “Lethal Journey” does this twice. First, a cow ends up on the tracks, only getting out of the way at the last second. Then, a rock blocks the tracks. This proves to be too intense for the crew, who are carrying nitroglycerine on the train and have to be careful to avoid setting it off. Fortunately, they are able to clear the rock by using their cargo.
  • The Thunderbirds episode "Brink of Disaster" features a monorail which is completely automatic. A heli-jet patrolling the track crashes into it, damaging the automatic signal wires, making it impossible for the train to stop, in a very bad case of Failsafe Failure.

    Theme Parks 
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in all incarnations. Such hazards tend to include such things as broken trestles, flooded caves, earthquakes, and tunnels undergoing blasting.
    • Disneyland Paris's version goes a step further by having a trestle that has been partially washed away, with resulting drop being the location of the on-ride photo.

    Video Games 
  • In Half-Life, the chapter "Apprehension" opens with soldiers blowing up the track your tram is on, and you'll end up crashing into a nearby pool of water if you don't get off in time.
  • In Lighthouse: The Dark Being, one of the last puzzles in the game deals with replacing a broken rail with a new one. And you have to make sure to stop your mining tram in time, otherwise it derails and lands you being trapped in the Parallel World forever.
  • Little Wheel: There is a large gap in the rail that the train hangs from, causing it to fall to the ground, forcing the protagonist to proceed on foot (or, on wheel since it's a robot).
  • In Toy Commander, the goal of the "Railroad Rabble" mission is to get a toy train safely to the station on the other side of the parents' bedroom. If you choose to have the train take the longer path, you'll need to hit the switches to switch tracks and avoid having the train fall off unfinished tracks.

    Web Animation 
  • Enterprising Engines:
    • Early in "Rising to the Occasion", Donald comes off the tracks when he runs over some damaged rails. He crashes into a bridge support, and as a result, Frank falls off the bridge when he tries to cross it and lands near Donald.
    • In "Greg and Lars", the two titular lorries work near a bridge on the Narrow Gauge line. Greg, who believes he's blind but is actually just wearing some sunglasses that make him think he is, accidentally backs into a support, damaging the bridge. With no way of warning Sir Handel, who is about to cross the bridge, Lars gets the idea for Greg to stand underneath the bridge so his tall load can support it. Greg does so, and Sir Handel safely crosses the bridge. Greg congratulates himself for a job well done, only for the foreman to remind him that he was responsible for damaging the bridge in the first place. Sure enough, when Greg moves out of the way, the bridge collapses and when Freddie crosses it, he falls off it.

  • In Girl Genius a bridge on the route to Paris is taken out by Knights of Jove allied to Martellus which forces the train Agatha's on to stop. When the Wyrm's engine gets tipped by a group of Uplifted bears in the ensuing fight some of the cars in back are loaded with the passengers and uncoupled from the disaster dominoes occurring with the rest of the train and then convert into a very unstable looking emergency escape airship to flee to the Depot Fortress of St Spzac.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Christmas With The Joker", Joker has hijacked all the local tv stations and taken Commissioner Gordon, Summer Gleason, and Harvey Bullock hostage. To stall Batman and Robin from tracking him down, he has his goons blow up the President's Bridge before the 11:30 train (which has Summer's Mom onboard) arrives. Batman and Robin are forced to detour to the tracks, with the former grabbing the engineer and the latter uncoupling the passenger cars, before the engine careens off the bridge.
  • In the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog episode "The Robotnik Express", the titular bomb-loaded train is headed towards an unfinished bridge, built directly over the Buffalo Village. When Sonic reaches the bridge, he informs two of the workers that they only have five minutes to fix the bridge before the train gets to it. Towards the end of the episode, when Sonic is forced to sacrifice his original plan to switch the train onto a dead end and save Da Bearz, they have to fix the bridge as fast as they can, at least to the point of launching the train to the other side of the bridge.
  • During the climax of Hell Bent For Election, Joe switches Track 44’s switch against the Defeatist Limited. The Limited becomes a barreling runaway, and eventually crashes at the switch.
  • The origin story for Kissyfur is put into action when the circus train Gus and Kissyfur are being transported on speeds towards a bridge damaged from a storm. The engineer is unable to stop the train in time, and they all plunge off the bridge into the river below, thus allowing Gus and Kissyfur to escape from the wreck.
  • The New Adventures of Superman: In "The Iron Eater", Superman has to stop a train after the eponymous monster eats a section of track.
  • Mickey Mouse (2013): In "New Shoes", Mickey, Donald, and Goofy somehow swap bodies when they bump into each other. In Goofy's body, Mickey tries putting his newfound strength to use to help others, one of which was involved using his body to support the entire weight of a circus train (pulled by Casey Junior from Dumbo, being driven by his namesake from The Brave Engineer) while it crosses a bridge with the tracks out. Notably, Mickey-As-Goofy winces in pain as the train drives over him.
  • In the The Powerpuff Girls (1998) episode, "Major Competition", when a new superhero called Major Man comes to Townsville and starts upstaging the girls with his superheroics, one of the things he does doing his superhero montage is fix a broken bridge before an approaching train can cross it. When the girls expose Major Man for the fraud that he is by having him fight a giant monster that they hired for this cause, among the other disasters he set up, Major Man admits that he deliberately bent the tracks so he could fix them.
  • In the Rugrats (1991) episode "Where's Grandpa?", when Grandpa Lou goes missing at a Canadian tourist attraction, Tommy and Chuckie sneak onto a train ride that is closed for maintenance to find him. When the engineer sends the train onto a test run, the train heads toward an unfinished track leading to the edge of a cliff, which Tommy and Chuckie aren't aware of, but Stu and Didi certainly are. Didi tries to switch the train onto the safe track, but sends it onto the unsafe one instead. Fortunately, the train stops before it goes off the unsafe track, and Tommy and Chuckie get out just in time. Unfortunately for Stu, who was chasing after the train, the slope of the hill makes the train go backwards, and it chases after him.
  • Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated: In "The Wild Brood", the villain blows up a bridge in order to destroy a valuable brand-new video game console being carried on a train, which he also rendered a runaway. The train does end up plunging off the bridge and violently blowing up, but the game console is saved.
  • In one of the Superman Theatrical Cartoons, "Billion Dollar Limited," bad guys attempt to wreck the titular train carrying a large shipment of gold. They try rerouting the train on a switch to a boxcar loaded with explosives, and blowing up a bridge. Superman foils both plans, but is unable to save the locomotive from being destroyed by a bomb. Fortunately, he's powerful enough to pull the train the rest of the way.
  • In the Superman: The Animated Series episode "The Demon Reborn", Talia al Ghul blows up a bridge before Superman can stop her from stealing priceless Native American artifacts onboard, forcing him to stop the train. He struggles to halt it, but fortunately, a familiar car drives on the parallel tracks as Batman (who had been pursuing Talia) uses a grappling hook to switch the tracks and let Superman have more time to successfully stop the train. Batman is able to stop his car before he winds up falling off the damaged section, while Superman halts the train before it hits the end of an unfinished section.
  • Thomas & Friends... hoo boy, if we were to list them all, we'd be here all day!:
    • In the episode "Thomas Gets Bumped", Thomas tries to run across his branch line faster, having been late the previous day helping some school children get home when their school bus breaks down. One piece of the tracks on his line has been bent by the hot sun, and when he tries to slow down, he ends up derailing when he runs across it.
    • In the episode "Bye George!", George the Steamroller is sent to build a new level crossing. He deliberately does so very poorly, so that the asphalt covers the rails. As Thomas tries to deliver some vegetables, his driver notices the unsafe level crossing and tries to stop him (as the signalman didn't tell him about it earlier), but Thomas ends up derailing when he goes over the crossing and crashing into a chicken coop.
    • In "A Friend in Need", the Sodor Construction Company is working near a railway bridge. When Ned the Steam Shovel travels under the bridge, he doesn't lower his crane arm far enough, and it knocks the bridge's keystones, causing the bridge to crumble. When Jack the Front Loader hears Thomas approaching the bridge, he holds it up until Thomas backs up to safety. When Jack is unable to hold the bridge any longer, it collapses.
    • In "Diesel's Ghostly Christmas", As a result of Diesel refusing to help Paxton deliver the Christmas tree, a secton of track gets damaged when Paxton derails. Karma catches up to Diesel later in the episode when he tries to get away from Paxton as the Ghost of Christmas Past and runs over the damaged track, which derails him.
  • The Tom and Jerry cartoon "Kitty Foiled" shows Tom Cat fix Jerry Mouse Chained to a Railway of a scale model railroad set, then ride atop the running train itself. Jerry's newest friend, a yellow canary, drops a bowling ball in Tom's path, which not only wrecks the tracks, but powers a huge hole in the living room floor! It never occurs to that Too Dumb to Live cat to hop off the train.
  • In the TUGS episode "High Tide", when Top Hat, Zebedee, and Zak come across a narrow canal with a railway bridge above it, the high tide causes Zebedee's steel rig to damage the bridge. While Zebedee and Zak leave to get help, Top Hat uses Zebedee's steel rig to prop up the bridge whilst Puffa travels across it. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, the steel rig sinks and the bridge collapses, forcing Top Hat to catch the Goods Engine in Lord Stinker the Garbage Barge when it comes across the bridge.

    Real Life 
  • During The American Civil War, troops would often take up rails, heat them to up, then twist them into a corkscrew or wrap them around a tree to prevent them from being properly repaired, an effect that came to be known as "Sherman's neckties" after General Sherman implemented it during the March to the Sea. It should be noted that southern railroads at the time consisted of a relatively thin metal strip on top of a wood rail, doing this to modern rails would be much more difficult.
  • Averted in a US military experiment to determine ways to derail a train with a small amount of explosives. The train was able to pass over a 30 inch gap in both rails.
  • The infamous derailment of the City of San Francisco occurred in 1939 because of this, courtesy of saboteurs destroying a bridge prior to the train's arrival. To this date, the suspects have never been caught.
  • World War II:
    • Soviet resistance fighters during would often disrupt the tracks in order derail or stop German trains. It was a relatively safe and simple way to disrupt enemy logistics and (with luck) set up major accidents, Belarusian saboteur networks particularly distinguished themselves at that. Naturally, many Russian World War II films include such scenes, complete with something complicating the sabotage. If successful, the train is inevitably derailed.
    • La Résistance in France and the Low Countries also did this during Operation Overlord to delay the arrive of German troops and supplies (particularly fuel). The most effective saboteurs were railway workers who knew how to inflict the most damage with minimal effort.
  • Amtrak's deadliest train wreck in their near 50-year-old history involved this, on September 22, 1993, when an old railroad bridge in Mobile, Alabama was accidentally dislodged by a barge lost in the fog during the night. Eight minutes later, a speeding Amtrak Sunset Limited passenger train hit the damaged bridge, plunged off the tracks, and crashed and exploded in the bayou, killing 47 people and injuring 103. What makes this an unusual variant of this trope is that when the barge dislodged the bridge, an alarm would have sounded to let controllers know there was a problem, but it didn't work because the rails weren't actually broken – only buckled.
  • The collapse of the Tangiwai River Bridge was another tragic instance of this trope, standing to date as the worst railway disaster in New Zealand. Thanks to a dam holding back a deadly lahar (a mix of volcanic ash and mud) collapsing, said lahar knocked out a bridge over the Tangiwai River on Christmas Eve night, just before the Auckland express arrived. Despite an application of the brakes and the fire being shut off, 151 perished that night. In fact, the lives lost that night might have been worse had a passerby not seen the bridge and flagged down the train before it crossed.
  • For their assault on the capital city Kyiv during their invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Russian forces used Belarus as launchpad, including its railway system as supply lines. A clandestine network of Belarusian railway workers, hackers and dissident security forces sabotaged it, which prevented Russians from resupplying in ammunitions and thus contributed to thwarting the offensive on Kyiv and save the capital city, along with other factors (poor planning from the Russians, fierce and unexpected Ukrainian resistance, a big road convoy to replace the train resupplying that got bogged down by ambushes, etc).


Video Example(s):


This Is For Uncle Sam!

An FDR supporter sends a Pro-Thomas Dewey train barreling down the tracks to its brutal doom.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / TrackTrouble

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