A completely computerized passenger train is traveling across the country, with the Vice President’s wife as one of the passengers. When Jim Waterman (Paul L. Smith), a man who blames the railroad for the death of his family, manages to hijack the train he plans to ram into a locomotive until his demands a met. He wants railroad president Estes Hill (Raymond Burr) to take responsibility for the crash that killed his wife and children. With Waterman determined to crash the two trains, it falls to dispatchers Al Mitchell (Lloyd Bridges) and Roy Snyder (E.G. Marshall) to try to figure out a way to stop the collision. Helping them out on the train is a con artist named Stuart Peters (William Shatner!) who may be wanted by the police but who is still willing to do whatever it takes to save his fellow passengers.
Disaster on the Coastliner is an above-average made-for-TV disaster movie. Even though it was obviously made for a low-budget and that the majority of the money was probably spent on securing the B-list cast, there are enough shots of the train careening on the tracks to bring happiness to the hearts of most disaster movie fans. The cast is full of the type of people who you would typically expect to find in a movie like this, people like Raymond Burr, Lloyd Bridges, and William Shatner. Bridges, interestingly enough, gives the same performance here that he gave in Airplane! and when he starts ranting about how everything’s computerized, he sounds like he could be reciting dialogue from that film. The only difference is that Airplane! was a comedy while Disaster On The Coastliner is meant to be a drama. Raymond Burr also does a good job hamming it up as the president of the railroad. He spends most of the movie sitting behind his desk and looking annoyed, which was pretty typical of Burr in the years after Perry Mason and Ironside.
For a lot of people, the main appeal of this film will be seeing what William Shatner was doing in between Star Trek movies. This is a typical early 80s Shatner performance, when he was still trying too hard to win that first Emmy but also when he had just starting to develop the self-awareness necessary to poke fun at his own image. Shatner really digs into the role of a conman with a heart of gold. He delivers his lines in his trademark overdramatic style but, in scenes like the one where he sheepishly discovers that a door that he’s been pounding on was unlocked all the time, Shatner actually seems to be in on the joke. Shatner also did his own stunts in this film, including one where he had stand on top of a speeding train. In his autobiography, Shatner wrote that he wasn’t even wearing a safety harness in the scene so give it up for Bill Shatner. That took guts!
Fast-paced and agreeably unpretentious, Disaster On The Coastliner is an enjoyable runaway train movie.