It must have been a horrific crash that rattled the August Sunday night in extreme western Montana.
By daylight on Monday, Aug. 14, the wreckage of a train and the spillage of 31 loaded coal cars on the Montana Rail Link line were clearly visible from a convenient turnout on Montana Highway 200 across the Cabinet Gorge Reservoir, and eight miles from the Idaho line.
There were no human casualties, but more than a month later some 3,700 tons of coal that were destined to Boardman, Oregon, from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming remained on the banks. Now puffs of smoke throughout the mess indicated the coal was self-combusting.
“That’s the first time we’ve dealt with that, and we’ve hauled a lot of coal across the railroad,” Jim Lewis, Montana Rail Link’s information officer, said Thursday.
Coal is considered a non-hazardous material by the Federal Railroad Administration. Tests launched in September and overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed no difference in the contaminant level above and below the spill site, Lewis said.
Initial efforts to douse the smoldering coal only exacerbated the issue. The only way to get it out was to get the coal out, which is what happened the following week. By the end of September, MRL announced that the wreckage and 99 percent of the coal spill was cleaned up. A vacuum truck cleaned up after that and the coal, now useless commercially, was shipped to a repository in North Dakota.
Rail Link says it spent $2.5 million in infrastructure repair, freight claims and cleanup. It’ll wait for spring to see if the spongy green hydroseeding that now covers the site is sufficient for revegetation.
Lewis said the railroad has an idea what caused the derailment, but can’t comment until the official FRA investigation is over and reported. That often can take a year or more.
But one takeaway was clear: “We need to get in there quicker.”
“If we had it to do all over again, we would have got in here much quicker and mobilized contractors much quicker than what we did,” Lewis said during a tour of the derailment site with a handful of reporters and Matt Nykiel of the Idaho Conservation League.
Step one, he said, is having contracts already in place, so contractors have the necessary documentation to be on MRL property.
“Our procurement department right now is going through the process of setting up specific contractors, and multiple contractors, so that when we get into this type of situation we’re not waiting on a contractor who may have his resources tied up in Minnesota and can’t be here for a month,” Lewis said. “We want to be able to have options to get the quickest response we can, even if it’s at a higher cost to MRL. It’s worth it to us to get the product out and get it out quickly.”
The vast majority of train derailments are caused by broken rails or broken wheels. Lewis put the percentage at 99, although statistics from the FRA aren’t quite that high.
Lewis and MRL trainmaster Pete Kobilansky reviewed the steps the railroad takes to prevent both. Among them: All 900 miles of the class II regional line are scoured by Kobilansky and assistant roadmasters each Monday and Friday. If the temperature tops 85 degrees on a day before July 4, 90 degrees after that, or drops below zero in the winter, “we’re out there constantly,” said Kobilansky.
An in-depth rail inspection takes place five times a year, three more than the FRA requires, and a geometry car also cruises the whole line two or three times a year. The FRA doesn’t require that.
The track where the derailment occurred is between Noxon and Heron and westbound trains are just coming off a sweeping left curve. It had been inspected and cleared to go two days before the Sunday derailment, Kobilansky said.
MRL has shops in Laurel and Missoula and each has inspectors on 4-wheelers whose job it is to check the wheels on all cars as they enter and leave yards. Three years ago the railroad installed 35 wayside detectors along the line to check for things like wheel impact, hot wheels, wide loads and dragging equipment.
BNSF has similar measures in place on both ends of the MRL line, Lewis pointed out, so if the culprit was a bad wheel it slipped notice of at least six inspections during the haul from Wyoming, or else occurred after the last one in Missoula.