You know that old saying, "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me"? Well, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) had the gall to fool us a second time.
They duped us with The Day the Earth Moved in 1974 by promising us a huge earthquake and they did it again five years later, promising us a huge train wreck.
With the air traffic controllers on strike, everyone has foregone the friendly skies and have gone back to traveling on the rails. Even the Second Lady travels by train.
Disgruntled employee Victor Prescott (Paul L. Smith) is happily finishing up working on the computer and as he leaves, Secret Serviceman Al Mitchell (Lloyd Bridges) tells supervisor Roy Snyder (E.G. Marshall) that there's one too many bodies in the office. Prescott says that he's leaving, which brings the body count to what Mitchell was expecting.
In San Francisco, Matt Leigh (Robert Fuller) receives a surprise phone call from his wife, Paula (Yvette Mimieux) telling him that she's on her way up from Los Angeles because she "misses him." Matt panics and tosses his one night stand out of the room. He decides that he's going to head down to Los Angeles after a fight with Paula to spend the weekend.
Prescott drives to the train station and he accosts the engineer.
After a quick change of clothes, he heads to the engine, where precocious passenger Davy (Dago Dimster) asks where the other engineer is. Prescott ignores him as he hefts himself into the engine and closes the door.
Mrs. Shanks (Jacque Lynn Colton) scolds Davy for not being with her and he tries to explain to her that there's a different engineer and she (like most adults) brushes him off as they board the northbound train.
In the train station, Stuart Peters (William Shatner) marks Paula and bumps into her. She tells him that she's not going to San Francisco, but he manages to get her onto the train, as he's using her for cover from the police.
Once inside the coach, the two sit together and he starts making moves on her.
Both of the trains begin their respective journeys on the same track and on the southbound train, Lothario Leigh picks up another girl in the club car. He knocks back those drinks as if he's drinking water, plus he's trying to make a second score of the day. And it's barely noon!
While Snyder thinks everything is fine for both trains, Mitchell causes all types of distractions and the employees just wish this day would be over and he'd disappear. Snyder goes over the train procedures again and Mitchell notices that the southbound train doesn't change tracks.
Snyder and company begin to panic and they soon find out that Prescott has monkeyed around with the computer and also identifies himself as Jim Waterman. Previously, his wife and child were killed in a train wreck and while he's not looking for compensation, he wants Estes Hill, the president of the railroad (Raymond Burr) to admit to a payoff.
Hill tells him that he wasn't with the company at the time of the accident and finds out that John Carlson (Lane Smith) covered up the facts. He apologizes on television.
Prescott/Waterman has also been manipulating the engineer of the southbound train (Pat Hingle) and he believes that there are terrorists aboard his train.
With minutes to spare, everyone has to come together and figure out a plan to avoid disaster. It's surprising what can be accomplished in a few minutes when you're under pressure.
Also, since this tense situation is being played out on local television, a huge crowd gathers at the intersection of where the trains are due to crash. They even have signs (you can't see it, but I'm rolling my eyes) cheering on the impending disaster.
I was probably disappointed when I first saw this on television, and years later, I'm still disappointed, but it's well worth seeing Shatner in his press and peel pornstache changing his appearance to hide from the police and Fuller has a big surprise for everyone.