UPDATE: Avalanche blocks BNSF's Marias Pass

RELATED TOPICS: BNSF | WEST | WEATHER | OPERATIONS
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MariasPass
Marias Pass, Mont.
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MARIAS PASS, Mont. — BNSF Railway officials are unsure when they’ll be able to clear snow and debris from their main line over Marias Pass in northwest Montana.

According to BNSF, an avalanche came down along the former Great Northern Railway main line at approximately 4 p.m. Sunday near Summit, Mont., 85 miles west of Shelby. According to sources close to BNSF, the avalanche has halted dozens of freight trains and Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Amtrak posted online that there would be no alternative passenger transportation between Minot, N.D., and Spokane, Wash.

“BNSF crews were prepared for and are actively working to mitigate avalanche debris and blowing snow that has reached the rail grade,” spokesperson Ross Lane tells Trains News Wire. “While we currently have no estimated time for reopening both main tracks, we will resume operations through the corridor when conditions allow for the safe movement of trains.”

Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari tells Trains News Wire that the eastbound and westbound Empire Builder trains on either side of the slide were being returned to Whitefish and Shelby, Mont., where passengers will be put in hotels until the line is clear. The Empire Builder trains scheduled to leave Portland, Ore., and Seattle on Monday evening have been canceled and the one out of Chicago was going to turn at St. Paul, Minn.

The avalanche comes as a massive winter storm pummels northwest Montana, expected to dump upwards of 50 inches of snow on Marias Pass on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. A winter weather warning is in effect through Monday night.

The last time avalanches shut down BNSF’s main line over Marias Pass was in 2014. Due to the rugged terrain at the edge of Glacier Park, BNSF contracts with an avalanche safety specialist to train employees who work in that area on how to deal with slides. That specialist also tries to forecast when conditions are right for avalanches to help the railroad prepare should they happen.

Information on freight train rerouting is unavailable.

Read more about ‘Railroading in Avalanche Alley’ in the December 2015 issue of Trains Magazine.

UPDATE: Information from BNSF Railway and Amtrak. Jan. 6, 2017, 12:41 p.m. Central time.


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