After a rough Montana month of train derailments, bizarre
weather and a bogus terrorism threat, the iron horse that tamed the
West is limping into March like Mr. Ed.
February was not kind to train traffic in Montana, with costly
business delays as rails used by 40 or more trains a day were taken
offline for repairs.
The worst may have been last weekend when a vicious snowstorm
drifted in an idling Burlington Northern Santa Fe train so badly
that it had to be dug out with shovels before it could move.
“There was a train stopped that was actually frozen. This is
extremely rare,” said Gus Melonas, BNSF spokesman. “Rarely does
Mother Nature stop our railroad in Montana; however, last Saturday
due to excessive winds blowing over 60 mph to 70 mph in the
Browning and Glacier Park area, we had a train that was
The winds blew a 6-foot drift across the train and packed heavy
snow between its wheels. Everything from hand shovels to large
equipment had to be brought in to clean it, Melonas said.
Crews freed the train, which was drifted in as it waited for
another locomotive to pass, then had to deal with 15-foot drifts
covering the tracks near Browning.
Amtrak canceled all Chicago-bound passenger service from
Portland. Ore., and Seattle and abruptly announced that its
Seattle-bound passengers from Chicago would be dropped off in St.
Paul, Minn. — the new end of the line with Montana drifting in.
Just one weekend earlier, Amtrak was forced to bus riders some
400 miles from Minot, N.D., to Havre because of a grain train
derailment just east of Montana in Williston, N.D.
The message that BNSF wants to convey, Melonas said, is that the
railroad was pulling out all the stops to keep the trains running
However, the stoppages were noticeable.
At one point BNSF lost three grain trains to derailments in
three days. A 105-car grain train hauling wheat from Pompeys Pillar
to Portland was the first to go. That derailment on Feb. 20
happened two miles west of Belgrade when the emergency brakes
unexpectedly went off, probably because of a broken wheel beneath
one of the 143-ton wheat cars.
The derailment, which tipped 14 cars and derailed 17, stopped
traffic on BNSF’s southern route for 22 hours for track repairs.
Trains backed up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and east of Billings.
“There’s a billion reasons why they derail and that’s one of
them, probably a broken wheel,” said Rob Kulat, of the Federal
Kulat said there’s really isn’t a common cause among the
The next day the Williston derailment decommissioned 32
Portland-bound cars loaded with corn and wrecked both sets of track
connecting Chicago to Seattle and Portland. The derailment stopped
traffic for roughly a day.
A day later, another BNSF train hauling Montana wheat to Kalama,
Wash., derailed south of the Flathead Tunnel near Whitefish. That
wreck put 17 wheat cars from Moore into a crumpled accordion array
and again blocked the main line between Chicago, Seattle and
Portland for 24 hours.
Train traffic along the Hi-Line had also stalled Feb. 15, when
Amtrak stopped in Browning to remove an unruly passenger from the
Empire Builder and then proceeded to check the train for threats as
it blocked the main line. Amtrak passengers had to spend the night
in sleeping bags in the Browning Middle School gym because their
train’s crew had reached the allowed limit for hours on the job.
Relief engineers were sent in.
The delays have made tough sledding for getting Montana’s wheat
to market with grain trains arriving at elevators for pickup days
later than planned. The snow is deep, but so is Montana’s wheat
supply after a record 215 million-bushel crop in 2010.
Some elevators were so overrun with grain that wheat had to be
stored on the ground, including a million-bushel pile outside the
Gavilon elevator in Moore.
For lack of a place to store that crop at coastal ports, much of
Montana’s wheat didn’t start moving out of state until January,
said Lochiel Edwards of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
Edwards, who has represented farmers in shipping talks with
BNSF, said no one’s faulting the railroad for shipping
“With the ferocious weather we’ve had on the Northern Plains,
we’ve all had problems,” Edwards said.
Montana’s shipping challenges began last summer when prices were
low and many farmers were reluctant to commit their crops to fall
shipment with such a poor economy, Edwards said.
With less wheat coming in, coastal grain companies began
stockpiling other crops. China was on a spending spree for
soybeans, and port facilities seized the opportunity, Edwards
Montana wheat shipments then had to wait until port warehouses
cleared out. Now shipments are coursing through the system like a
bulge in a garden hose, segments which may on any given day be
kinked or frozen.
Contact Tom Lutey at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1288