Runaway Train had its premiere in New York City on November 15, 1985, followed by its limited release in 965 theatres on December 6, 1985. It made $2,601,480 on that weekend. It was released nationwide on January 17, 1986 and was well received by critics, but failed to find an audience. It opened in 8th place its premiere weekend, and failed to make back its production cost. The film also had a premiere in Anaconda, Montana at the Washoe Theatre on March 20, 1986. Invitations for the premiere were sent to people from the department of Commerce, Rarus Railroad and Cannon Films personnel, as well as Jon Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca DeMornay. However, none of the actors could attend. The film made $7,936,012 worldwide.
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Controversy first arose when the French-owned and Montgomery County, Maryland -based Keolis (already operating Virginia Railway Express trains) was the only bidder for the contract. The bidding process was suspended in the fall of 2010 due to lack of competition. Before bidding reopened in 2011, Maryland passed a law (at the request of Leo Bretholz and other Holocaust survivors) requiring Keolis's majority owner, SNCF (currently solely owned by the French government)  to fully disclose its role in transporting Jews to concentration camps during World War II (while SNCF was under control of the Nazi government), to the satisfaction of the Maryland state archivist, before Keolis would be allowed to place a bid for MARC service. Keolis faced similar issues while bidding for VRE operations in 2009, but in the end, they were allowed to run VRE.