Montana Railroad Accidents Fall 55 Percent in Last Decade

FRA data shows railroad-related accidents in Montana dropped from 198 in 2008 to 98 last year

By Justin Franz
A BNSF Railway freight train runs along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Beacon file photo

The number of railroad-related accidents and incidents in Montana has dropped 55 percent in the last decade, according to the Federal Railroad Administration and the Montana Public Service Commission.

Rail safety inspectors updated the five-member service commission last week at a meeting in Helena.

During the same 10-year period, between 2008 and 2017, the number of railroad employee on-duty injuries also dropped by 63 percent, from 100 injuries in 2008 to just 37 injuries in 2017. PSC Railroad Inspector Dave Jackson noted that railroad-related accidents were falling at a sharper rate in Montana than most states in the Pacific Northwest; only Wyoming and Alaska saw a sharper decline. Jackson attributed that to improved rail safety education.

“Our partnerships with industry members and organizations like Operation Lifesaver have played a major role in driving down rail accidents and employee injuries,” he said. “Everyone has a role to play in rail safety from the mechanic changing out a defective wheel on a locomotive to the school bus driver who drives through a crossing on their daily route.”

Ross Lane, a spokesperson with Montana’s largest rail operator, BNSF Railway, attributed the decline in rail accidents to the company’s investments in infrastructure and safety. Lane said BNSF has spent $600 million on its Montana network in the last four years, including upgrades to track and other equipment.

“Safety is the most important thing we do at BNSF and influences every activity we undertake,” Lane said. “Success in reducing injuries and accidents has not been accidental, but rather the result of record capital investment from BNSF, a continued emphasis on our safety vision and culture with our employees, our commitment to the communities we serve and our support of Operation Lifesaver.”

Operation Lifesaver is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing railroad fatalities, especially at road crossings. Every three hours, a train in the United States strikes a person or vehicle.

Lane also touted the railroad’s implementation of positive train control, a technology meant to prevent train collisions and speed-related derailments. Congress mandated the installation of positive train control following a fatal passenger train head-on collision in California; railroads have until Dec. 31 of this year to install it on passenger train routes.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, BNSF has installed positive train control on 89 percent of its routes that require it. Lane said the technology is currently in use on its line across the Hi Line. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have said that positive train control would have prevented a fatal Amtrak wreck south of Seattle in December.

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