Runaway train

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:

Date Location Cause Details References
August 22, 2019 Upper Palatine, Germany improper brake setup A 1900 t freight train with two engines ran without brakes 90 kilometres (56 mi) through Upper Palatine, starting at Cheb near the Czech border and coming to a stop safely on flat terrain in Irrenlohe. Brakes were ineffective due to a closed angle cock between the locomotives and the first car of the train. [1]
February 27, 2019 Ramses Station, Cairo, Egypt Train driver left train to fight with another train driver Unmanned train rolled into buffer, fuel tank burst and fuel exploded, killing 20 and injuring another 40 Ramses Station rail disaster[2]
2018 Port Hedland, Australia Train driver left engine to inspect a wagon An iron ore train consisting of 4 locomotives and 268 loaded wagons en route from Newman to Port Hedland (operated by BHP Billiton on the Pilbara Railways) travelled driverless 92 kilometres (57 mi) at high speed, after the driver went out to inspect. The company deliberately derailed the train to avoid an uncontrolled incident. [3]
2017 Wadi, India 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 [4]
December 22, 2017 North of Brenner, Austria improper brake setup While setting up the lead engine, the driver closed the angle cock between lead and slave unit to perform the ATP test. He forgot to open the cock before departure. The train went down the 2.5 % grade North ramp of the Brenner Railway and reached a speed of 125 kilometres per hour (78 mph) before cars at the end of the train derailed and broke off empying the brake pipe. Despite 2nd locomotive was coupled to the brake pipe, it did not vent it because the emergency brake signal from the first unit was not transmitted over the train bus. [5]
2016 Landen, Belgium The driver left the cabin to do some check-ups on the train when it started moving. After 30 minutes and 12 kilometres (7.5 mi), the train was stopped by a driver who jumped into the train's cab. No one was injured nor did the train hit anything. [6]
2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec Combination of neglect, defective locomotive, poor maintenance, driver error, flawed operating procedures, weak regulatory oversight, lack of safety redundancy Train driver did not set enough hand brakes to stop the crude oil train from rolling down the slope, train rolled down the slope and derailed in a curve. Several tank cars burst and caught fire, killing 47 people Lac-Mégantic rail disaster[7]
2012 Ion Luca Caragiale village, Romania brakes improperly set 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 [8]
2010 Pretoria, Johannesburg, South Africa 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).
June 15, 2010 Braz, West ramp of Arlbergbahn, Austria technical defect A low hanging air coupling between two permanently coupled car racks got kicked by rails laying in track. It broke in two and the rear part ended up kinked and jamed in the underframe of the car rack. Air was bottled in the rear part of the train leaving the brakes released. Train could only apply brakes of the locomotive and the first car on the 3.1 % grade. Train derailed, driver was slightly injured. [9]
2007 Congo-Kinshasa west of Kananga Brake failure 100 killed Benaleka train accident[10]
May 27,2006 Switzerland near Thun inproper brake setup During the brake test it was not discovered that the angle cock between the locomotive and the first car was still closed. The construction train run down the 1,5 % grade of the North access ramp to the Lötschberg Tunnel. Dispatchers did have another option then diverting the train in an active construction site, which had to be evacuated on short notice. 3 killed. The incident inspired the motion picture Der Geisterzug von Spiez.[11] [12]
June 20, 2003 Los Angeles, CA, United States 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. [13]
2003 2003 Melbourne runaway train an empty suburban train runs 17 kilometres unattended before colliding with another train at Spencer Street railway station 11 people were injured.
May 15, 2001 Kenton, Ohio, U.S. Train driver left train to pull switch Unmanned train rode for 2 hours at 51 miles/hour CSX 8888[14]
  • 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 the engineer incorrectly set the locomotive's dynamic brake. The incident inspired the 2010 motion picture Unstoppable.[15]
  • Martín Coronado, Argentina (1999) – Train's brakes failed during motoman's distraction, passing by six stations without him. Stopped by a passerby train keeper after noticing hysterical people inside the train.[16]
  • Colorado Springs, Colorado (1989) 67 car Burlington Northern coal train runaway [17]
  • San Bernardino train disaster, California (1989) - brakes failed on freight train which crashed into houses
  • Wasserburg am Inn, Upper Bavaria, Germany (1988) - on New Years Eve morning an EMU of Munich S-Bahn became a runaway train after the train driver went to the toilett in the terminal station Ebersberg. Train run the complete line till Wasserburg, where it ended at a buffer stopp. Nobody hurt, but equipment damage.[18]
  • New Brunswick, Canada March (1987) Canadian National ore train derailed.[19][20] 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.[21]
  • 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.
  • Wädenswil, Switzerland (1948) – Winter sport train was guided deliberately in a siding after the driver of the crocodile locomotive did not realise that he was in electric traction instead of dynamic brake while going downhill on a 5 % grade. 21 killed.[22]
  • 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.[23][24]
  • 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. ^ "Zug in Bayern außer Kontrolle: Verdacht richtet sich gegen Lokführer". Merkur. September 28, 2019.
  2. ^ "Cairo Train Driver Left Brakes Off". BBC News. February 28, 2019.
  3. ^ "BHP counts cost of runaway ore train derailment after suspending rail operations". November 5, 2018. Archived from the original on September 10, 2019.
  4. ^ Mouneshwar Sonnad (November 9, 2017). "Driver chases runaway engine on his bike, stops it after 13km".
  5. ^ "Untersuchungsbericht Entgleisung von Z 43144 zwischen den Hst Gries und St. Jodok am 22. Dezember 2017" (PDF). 2018.
  6. ^ "Belgian runaway train prompts alert". BBC News. February 19, 2016.
  7. ^ Huffstutter, P.J. (July 8, 2013). "Insight: How a train ran away and devastated a Canadian town". Reuters. Retrieved July 9, 2013.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "Zugunglück am Arlberg: Bremssystem versagte". Die Presse. June 17, 2010. Retrieved March 2, 2021.
  10. ^ "DR Congo crash toll 'passes 100'". BBC News. August 2, 2007. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  11. ^ "Der Geisterzug von Spiez". September 7, 2019. Retrieved March 2, 2021.
  12. ^ "Schlussbericht zum Unfall eines Dienstzuges der BLS in Dürrenast (Thun)". September 10, 2020. Retrieved March 2, 2021.
  13. ^ " - Human error blamed for runaway train". June 26, 2003. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  14. ^ "Driver left train". Wikipedia. May 22, 2021.
  15. ^ David Patch (November 12, 2010). "At times, 'Unstoppable' goes off track from reality". Toledo Blade.
  16. ^ "Un tren sin maquinista descontrolado por la Línea Urquiza". Clarín (in Spanish).
  17. ^ The Colorado Springs Runaway 30 years later, retrieved January 5, 2020
  18. ^ "Die Geisterfahrt des ET 420". OVB Heimatzeitungen. December 31, 2018. Retrieved March 2, 2021.
  19. ^ "Runaway - ARBITRATION CASE OF WESLEY MACDONALD". December 17, 1987.
  20. ^ "Nepisiguit Junction". Traingeek - Trains and Photography.
  21. ^ "Runaway Engine on the Main Line!". Popular Science. October 1961. Retrieved September 23, 2018.
  22. ^ "Archivbilder: Der Zugunfall von Wädenswil". SRF. May 18, 2006.
  23. ^ "A Wreck at Asheboro". The Charlotte Observer. Charlotte, NC. January 23, 1898. p. 8. Retrieved October 26, 2015 – via  
  24. ^ 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  

See alsoEdit