Why Can’t They Get It Right?

I recently watched one of my favorite television shows the other night called The Big Bang Theory.  In it, several of the characters take a romantic Valentine’s Day train ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train.  In the episode, they tried to infuse a little technical gobbledy-gook and referred to the locomotive as an ALCOA F4A.  Wrong!  ALCOA is the acronym for the Aluminum Company of America, and there is no such locomotive model as an F4A.  Okay, this is a comedy, and technical accuracy is not expected here.  But here in a small nutshell is a major pet peeve of mine in regards to the movie and television industry and railroads.

The very first motion picture to tell a full story was made in 1903.  It was called The Great Train Robbery and was filmed not too far from where I am writing this blog post by Thomas Edison’s film company.  From the very beginning of the motion picture industry, trains have played a major if not staring role.  Unfortunately, that role is fret with technical inaccuracies and outright ignorance of operating practices.  Why can’t they get it right?

It just seems that writers are simply not interested in getting the facts right when it comes to trains in their scripts.  Maybe they are just too pressured to get a script out there in time and can’t do the research or consult with a railroad expert to get the facts straight.  Or maybe they’re just too lazy or simply don’t care.  In any case, it leads to some very laughable, sometimes tragic moments in film and television that makes them hard for me to watch.

Take Unstoppable for instance.  Here was a film that had so much promise, it inspired me to finally get off my duff and write my novel.  It was based on an actual incident that occurred a few years earlier.  It stared two powerhouse actors in Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, and it was directed by Ridley Scott, one of the more prominent directors in the industry.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the film was a complete miss on how railroads and railroaders operate.  Why did they use such an unusual and up to that time unheard of commodity in the tank cars that were supposed to provide the suspense.  “God forbid these cars should wreck, otherwise the Phenyl-bad-shit would take out the town!”  Huh?  I would have used a much more deadly cargo that everyone knows here:  Chlorine.  Okay, it might not make a sexy explosion, but a single tank carload of chlorine can take out up to 100,000 people if it ever was broken open in a wreck, depending of course on the direction of the prevailing winds.  That is a fact, and it would put a real fear of God into an audience.

That of course leads me to the big bridge scene in the story.  There is absolutely no possible way a train tearing around a curve at a high enough speed to tilt over and lift off one rail could make it around that curve.  Trains are very top-heavy.  They are about 10 feet wide and ride on a track whose rails are just 4 feet, 8 and a half inches apart.  Just this alone makes a train similar to a gymnast balancing herself on a balance beam.  Lean too much to one side or the other, and the gymnast falls off.  Same for that train.  Once it leans that far over to the outside of the curve, it will roll over!  Game over!  Sayonara!  Now, if this were to happen with chlorine tank cars and the train falls into a tank farm with explosive petroleum products in it, now you’ve got something!  And why was the entire town heading to that crash site to see if the train could indeed make it around that bend on the bridge?  Where were the town officials and the police and why were they not directing citizens AWAY from the site?  Even how the train runs away in the beginning was completely boogered.  The actual event would have been more exciting and very easy to recreate on film.  Why did the script change this?

I could go on and on about this one film.  There are so many others.  A recent episode of NCIS:LA had a hijacked train with chlorine (Hmm, where did I hear about that before?) run away because the train’s air brake line separated and the hijacker, an environmental activist, couldn’t stop because, “My brakes don’t work anymore!”  WRONG AGAIN!  Once a separation of the brake line occurs, the train’s brakes apply in an emergency brake application, no if’s ands or buts (Unless some other catastrophic event precludes the system from doing so, a very, very rare and extremely unlikely event.)  The train would stop and the hijacker would not be able to move it at all until the air brake line was reconnected, the system reset and the air pressure in the system recharged.

In my novel, The Railroad Man, I took great pains to insure every aspect of the railroad in the story was technically accurate and properly presented.  Yes, I did embellish a couple of parts for the sake of drama, but these are done in a believable fashion and are limited mostly to the size of my train in the story vis a vis the severity of the slack action it creates in the cab of the locomotive.  What happens in my story is real and can happen.  It just needs to happen with a much larger train.

That’s all for now.  Except for one last thing.  The Locomotive in The Big Bang Theory episode was a Montreal Locomotive Works FPA 4.  Montreal was the Canadian subsidiary of the American Locomotive Company (ALCO) which continued to produce ALCO designed locomotives in Canada into the 1980’s, well after ALCO went out of business in the U.S. in 1969.  For all intents and purposes, Montreal Locomotives were ALCO’s.  Hence it would be acceptable to call the unit an ALCO FPA 4, or even better, an ALCO-designed FPA4.  Now that wouldn’t have taken any more time to write in the script and have the actress recite in the show, would it have?  Until next time.


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