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Even the re-imagining is horrific.

Stories and pictures from the wreck of an Amtrak Cascades train south of Seattle in December reflect the terror and carnage of a train going too fast.

Cars and trucks were crushed on Interstate 5, three passengers died and more than 50 people were injured after the train, traveling at nearly 80 mph in a 30-mph zone, derailed on approach to a bridge over I-5.

Three fatal Amtrak crashes since — in North Carolina, Virginia and, on Sunday, in South Carolina — have fueled an outcry to step up implementation of Positive Train Control, an expensive GPS-based system that stops trains before they jump the track or collide with something.

In the midst of the clamor this week came a good-news report from Helena and the Montana Public Service Commission.

Railroad related accidents and incidents in Montana have decreased 55 percent in the past 10 years, and on-duty employee injuries dropped 63 percent in that time, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration. Of the eight states in the Pacific Northwest, only Alaska and Wyoming have experienced sharper declines.

“At a time when train derailments are making headlines across the country on a regular basis, it’s encouraging to see the PSC’s efforts to promote a strong culture of railroad safety taking hold,” PSC commissioner Tony O’Donnell, R-Billings, said in a news release.

At the same time freight rail traffic is on the upswing on the state’s two main rail lines, BNSF Railway and Montana Rail Link.

State regulators and the railroads alike credit improved accident records to safety education programs such as Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing collisions at highway rail crossings. And the railroads point to the big bucks they keep pouring in to keep things safe.

“We’ve always been aggressive in our capital investment just because, primarily, it’s good for safety and it’s good for business,” said Jim Lewis of MRL, a Class II short-line railroad based in Missoula that hauls only freight.

“A good reliable railroad can generate more traffic, so we’ve prided ourselves over the last 30 years in putting nearly a billion dollars back into the railroad. I think that’s evident in our safety record and our accident rates, the number of derailments that we have.”

BNSF, one of the United States’ seven Class I railroads, duels Union Pacific for honors as the nation’s biggest in terms of annual revenue.

In the last four years, BNSF has invested over $600 million in its Montana network alone, said Ross Lane, Montana and Wyoming spokesman for the Texas-based rail giant. 

This year BNSF announced a $3.3 billion capital investment plan, “with well over half that amount going to maintenance activities,” Lane said.

Those activities include not only traditional track and equipment inspections, but new technologies such as rail and equipment detectors, unmanned inspection vehicles that provide automated video analysis, and drones to inspect and survey tracks and derailments from the air.


Positive Train Control involves an onboard computer system that receives and analyzes track data from base-station radios and wayside towers along a train’s route.

The locomotive engineer receives advance warning of speed limits and track conditions, as well as movement authority limits to head off collisions with other trains. If the engineer doesn’t respond, PTC automatically applies the brakes and brings it to a controlled stop.

It’s designed to eliminate accidents due to human error: train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, train movements through misaligned switches and unauthorized train entry into work zones. PTC won’t prevent vehicle-train accidents at crossings or those caused by track or equipment failures.

In the final months of 2017, BNSF became the first Class I railroad to complete installation of all federally mandated Positive Train Control infrastructure. Its more than 21,000 employees are trained to operate and maintain PTC trains and equipment.

Lane said all of BNSF’s 5,000 locomotives are equipped with PTC technology, and all 11,500 route miles have PTC infrastructure installed, including 1,200 miles in Montana. The railroad’s 6,000-plus radio towers are also installed.

Thousands of trains equipped with PTC have already run across Montana’s Hi-Line on the BNSF system.

“We are operating PTC on all required territory in Montana, and continue to test the system to improve reliability,” Lane said. “Interoperability with other railroads, including Amtrak, is a major focus area in 2018.”

Installation of PTC was mandated in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 to be installed by all Class I railroads and any passenger rail companies, whatever their class. The original implementation deadline was at the end of 2015, but it was extended by three years when Congress recognized what the Association of American Railroads called “an unprecedented technical and operational challenge.”

As a Class II freight hauler, Montana Rail Link is not one of the PTC-mandated railroads.

“It’s good technology, proven technology, and once the Class I railroads implement it, we will pursue that,” MRL’s Lewis said. “It’s just a matter right now of all the resources to install it being eaten up by the Class I railroads.”

Only one accident in recent years on MRL track could have been prevented by PTC. In November 2014 near Bonner, a BNSF locomotive pulling a loaded westbound train plowed into the back cars of an empty eastbound train that hadn’t made it to a siding near a Clark Fork River trestle in time.

These days, a BNSF train traveling from the east loses PTC capability when it hits MRL’s track near Huntley.

“Their crew gets off, our crew gets on a BNSF locomotive and they take it all the way to Hauser, Idaho,” Lewis said.

Once in northern Idaho, the train travels from Sandpoint, Idaho, to Hauser on BNSF track and it does regain Positive Train Control. MRL operators are now equipped to handle it.

“The system is designed to be a seamless transition with no need for the crew to take any action when transitioning from MRL to BNSF territory,” Lane said.

Up on the Hi-Line, Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train locomotives aren’t yet equipped with PTC.

At a January hearing following the deadly crash in western Washington, an Amtrak official told the Washington legislature PTC isn’t in operation on any Amtrak route west of the Mississippi River.

But Rob Eaton assured that will change soon. He reiterated Amtrak’s promise  to comply with the federal requirement by the end of this year. Complicating it is the fact that three different railroads own parts of the Empire Builder route, including BNSF.

Amtrak has hired Rockwell Collins to provide a way for its trains to interface with the PTC systems of 19 other railroads.