Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Art imitating life

In my research for this week’s article on the East Palestine train derailment, I ran across a piece on rail safety post-Lac Mégantic (a good piece, worth reading) that begins like this:

An unmanned, half-mile-long train carrying tank cars full of highly flammable petroleum products barrels out of control toward a city, where it threatens to derail on a curve and kill everyone in its wake. Luckily, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine show up to halt the train at the last second, saving the day. That was the plot of the 2010 film Unstoppable.

In real life, however, in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Denzel and Chris never showed up.

"Unstoppable" movie posterI thought it sounded like an eerie case of life imitating art until I looked up a couple of reviews of Unstoppable (which was directed by Tony Scott and which I haven’t seen) and realized that the movie was actually “inspired,” however loosely, “by true events.”

This 2010 article in the Toledo Blade explains, in wonderful train-nerd detail, the true story of what happened “[o]n a gray spring day in 2001,” when an engineer was moving a 47-car CSX Transportation freight train in a freight yard in Lake Township, Ohio. According to a Federal Railroad Administration report, the engineer was approaching a “misaligned track switch” at a “very slow speed that was still too fast for him to stop in time, so he climbed down from the engine to run and re-route the switch.”

In doing so, according to the report:

…he failed to place his engine’s brake-throttle selector in the braking position, and when he then shifted a control handle into full-power position, it was in full-throttle instead of full-brake. While he changed the switch, the train slowly pulled away before he could climb back aboard.

Locomotives have mechanical brakes as well as engine brakes, and the engineer had set the mechanical brake properly. Because that brake was set, a “dead-man” feature designed to stop the train if its engineer became incapacitated was disabled.

The train was carrying two carloads (a figure “quadrupled” in the movie) of phenol, a chemical:

…used in a wide variety of industrial processes that can cause skin, eye, or internal organ damage if touched or ingested, and is a toxic inhalation hazard if involved in a fire. While it does not readily ignite on its own, molten phenol easily ignites combustible materials, and burning phenol vapors may form explosive mixtures with air.

The train traveled 66 miles to Kenton, Ohio, before it was stopped. In real life, this was accomplished by sending a second locomotive which:

…caught up to the runaway several miles before it reached Kenton, coupled onto its rear car, and braked it enough to get through sharp curves in town without derailing. Then a CSX trainmaster…was able to run alongside at a road crossing just south of Kenton, pull himself aboard Engine 8888, and stop it.

In the movie, the first attempt to stop the train—which was depicted both as traveling much faster than the real-life train and posing a much more serious threat (“We’re talking a missile the size of the Chrysler building”)—was to send another train’s locomotives to:

…pull out ahead of it, let it catch up, and then brake enough to allow a combat-veteran railroad employee dangling from a helicopter to drop aboard the unoccupied train.

But a sudden jolt sends the man crashing through a windshield, ending that effort, and an aborted attempt to derail the runaway at this point succeeds only at sending the slow-down engines careening off the track and wrecking in a huge, unrealistic fireball.




As The Blade drily observes, had a second locomotive succeeded in coupling to the runaway train, a crew member could simply have walked into the unoccupied engines and shut them down, “no copters required, nor fireballs, either.”

What actually happened was that:

CSX’s first response to its runaway was to try to derail it, but the unmanned train ran through a track switch lined against it and knocked a portable derail mechanism off the rail without slowing down.

Only after those efforts failed was the crew of a Toledo-bound freight directed to uncouple their engines from their train and, after the runaway passed them, pursue it — whereas, in the movie, managers threaten to fire Washington and Pine when they propose the same tactic.

The Blade says that one of the biggest liberties taken by the filmmakers was in the matter of media coverage of the CSX train. In real life, the article says, media covered the train’s “capture” but it was months before the full story emerged. In the movie, the fictional rail operator is “amazingly cooperative about explaining its plans and providing employee names and photos to the media horde that chases the fictional runaway.”

That willingness to share information also contrasts sharply with what just happened in East Palestine, where officials with the Norfolk Southern Railway pulled out of a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday citing “concerns for their employees’ safety.”


Life imitating art?

The cover of Don DeLillo's "White Noise."I’m sure you’ve already heard that the movie version of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, a novel that features an “airborne toxic event,” the result of train derailment and chemical spill, was filmed in and around Ohio.

I’ve seen multiple interviews with the same East Palestine man whose family served as extras in a scene filmed in the nearby town of Salem.

But while both the novel and the choice of film location seem, again, eerily prescient, I was reminded this week that DeLillo was writing in 1985, shortly after “the worst industrial disaster in history,” the Union Carbide plant leak in Bhopal, India.

I promised to lighten things up in Fast & Curious this week and I am failing at it rather miserably—-although that trailer for Unstoppable is pretty funny and White Noise is actually a pretty funny book—so I will do you the favor of NOT recapping the Bhopal disaster and its aftermath, which is ongoing to this day.


Postmedia sucks

Yeah, this has not been a happy week.

Postmedia logo

“P” is for poopy.

Postmedia, which, lest we forget, is majority-owned by a New Jersey hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management, and has been sucking up federal subsidies like a shop-vac, announced in January it would be cutting 11% of its remaining 650 employees, and sources at the Montreal Gazette are saying that paper will be particularly hard hit, losing as much as 25% of its remaining staff.

Chatham Asset Management also owns the National Enquirer‘s parent company, American Media, and the McClatchy newspaper chain. As the Sacramento Bee (a McClatchy paper) explained in 2020, Chatham—on its own or with a partner—followed the same playbook in all three acquisitions: invest in the chain, lend it money, then swap that debt for ownership.

At the time the Bee was writing, Postmedia had already shed 40% of its workforce. (Chatham was promising to retain all McClatchy employees “in the transition to a new company” and “maintain salaries and benefits for at least a year,” but that was probably because, in its attempts to avoid bankruptcy, McClatchy had already axed 40% of its own workforce.)

But while things have been bleak for the average Postmedia reporter, some of the chain’s employees have been doing just fine, thank you very much. CEO Andrew MacLeod is well paid to bemoan the difficult decisions the company has been forced to make—he made $1.4 million in 2022 and, according to Toronto Star reporter Joanna Chiu, received a “fat $900,000 bonus” in 2021 for “extraordinary financial success” in digital initiatives, even as the paper was receiving millions in government subsidies ($64.9 million from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy alone):

In Postmedia’s 2020 annual report, CEO Andrew MacLeod said Postmedia would likely not have been profitable if not for over $35 million in government funds that year and named “government support” as one of its business’s four key pillars.

It’s not news, really, it’s been the reality for print journalism since the advent of the internet and as Tim Bousquet has noted on many an occasion, it is probably time to accept the end of the “dead tree” era of journalism and look to what can best take its place. (Please god, not AI-generated content—my inbox is now inundated with emails I’m quite sure are computer-generated offering AI programs that can write my stories for me.) But it’s galling to know that what money is still to be made in the industry is not going towards a new model of journalism or to journalists—it’s going to their corporate overlords.

Montreal “businessman and philanthropist,” Mitch Garber, has thrown out a lifeline to the Gazette, offering to assemble a group of local investors to buy a stake, minority or majority, in the paper, but MacLeod says that it’s not yet time to consider such an offer and that separating the Gazette from the rest of the chain would be so difficult it could only be done in the face of a truly “credible” offer.

And that’s where I’ll end this depressing dispatch from the wasteland that is late-stage capitalism.

I will try to cheer up over the weekend, I promise. I’m rewatching Arrested Development on Netflix which is helping: there’s always money in the Banana Stand, after all.