Could Accidents Throw Passenger-Train Plan Off Track?

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Rail Link mainline across southern Montana would be safe for any resumed passenger service, despite a string of recent freight derailments near Helena and Bozeman, railroad officials say.

Backers of a southern Montana passenger route agree.

Three trains operating on MRL track have derailed since January, two outside Helena and one near Bozeman. The accidents involved freight cars and empty asphalt tankers and no one was hurt. But the derailments have raised questions about what sort of upgrades would be required to the rails before passenger service, absent for nearly 30 years, could be restored to the state’s most populous cities.

Lynda Frost, spokeswoman for MRL in Missoula, said the March 5 derailment near Helena was caused by a tread buildup on one of the empty freight cars. A similar buildup also derailed eight empty cars near the same spot in January.

“It’s actually iron buildup on a wheel caused by excessive breaking coming down off that hill,” Frost said, referring to the steep grade off Mullan Pass. “Because we had a similar derailment in that area in January, we have sent the equipment back to the manufacturer for testing.”

Farther east down the MRL mainline, 25 cars on a freight train jumped track near Bozeman on March 15. Inspectors said a rail defect likely caused that accident.

The stretch of track near Bozeman was inspected by a rail detector just six weeks earlier, Frost said. The detector failed to indicate any problems with the track.

“It’s a large piece of equipment that takes an X-ray of the track,” Frost said. “Why we had a derailment six weeks later, it’s hard to say.”

Frost said MRL inspects its mainline at least twice a week. Crews set off in hi-rail inspection vehicles looking to identify any problems with the track.

What’s more, Frost said, MRL will invest $52 million this year to improve track, bridges and signaling on the MRL mainline.

James Green, president of the Montana-Wyoming Association of Railroad Passengers, praised MRL for its track maintenance efforts, both past and present.

Green, a longtime advocate for restoring passenger rail service on the southern Montana route, believes nearly 90 percent of the mainline between Billings and Missoula is already suitable for passenger service, with a few exceptions along the way.

“I would say there’d be a minimal amount of problems,” said Green, who lives in Billings. “The biggest problems are the curves, and there’s a lot more of them between Helena and Missoula than there are between Billings and Bozeman.”

Before restoring continuous passenger service along a route between Missoula and Billings, immediate upgrades must first focus on elevation work. Green said the work involves banking the curves by placing the outer rail slightly higher than the inner rail.

Green said track inspections would also become daily, up from twice a week.