Freight Derailment Near Essex Affects 3,000 Amtrak Passengers

By Beacon Staff

Holiday travel for more than 3,000 Amtrak rail passengers was disrupted when 16 rail cars carrying new automobiles derailed over the weekend in northwestern Montana.

Crews were still working Monday night to rerail the cars and reopen the Burlington Northern Santa Fe main line.

The derailment caused Amtrak to cancel its eastbound Empire Builder passenger train between Seattle and Minneapolis on Sunday and the westbound train between those cities Monday, said Vernae Graham, an Amtrak spokeswoman in Oakland, Calif.

She said other Empire Builder trains along the route were delayed, including one that was 22 hours late and another that was delayed 16 hours.

“We’re talking in the ballpark between 3,000 and 4,000 passengers” who were affected by the cancelations and delays, Graham said Monday night.

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas, in Seattle, said seven rail cars ended up on their sides in about three feet of snow when the 16 rail cars derailed at midafternoon Saturday. He said the condition of the automobiles is still being assessed and said he could not give a dollar estimate of the damage.

“Wrecking equipment and 35 people are on site,” Melonas said in a telephone interview. “Dozers, Cats, front-end loaders, excavators were brought in to rerail the cars.

As of early Monday seven cars had been rerailed, Melonas said.

The 16 cars derailed near Essex, just outside the southern boundary of Glacier National Park. They were part of a 47-car BNSF freight train loaded with autos en route from Chicago to Seattle.

Melonas said there are two parallel sets of tracks at Essex, which means some rail traffic continued to move through the area with delays.

Melonas said the derailment is under investigation.

A separate incident further west along the BNSF mainline was causing additional delays, Melonas said.

“This (Monday) morning we had a loaded grain train westbound, 3.5 miles west of Whitefish. There was track damage due to a broken wheel” on one of the cars of the train, the BNSF spokesman said. “It damaged the track structure. Crews will work throughout the night on the damaged track and we expect to reopen the line Tuesday at about 6 a.m.”

The BNSF main line at the point of the damaged rail is a single track, Melonas said.

About 65 people are working to repair the damaged track near Whitefish, he said.

Some 40 trains operate on BNSF’s main line across northern Montana each day, Melonas said.

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