BNSF mainline still mired in Montana snows

Railroad crews giving all they've got to clear avalanche near Marias Pass
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Amtrak’s Empire Builder and an eastbound BNSF Railway Z train sit in the snow-covered Whitefish, Mont., yard on Monday night waiting for workers to clear an avalanche that has blocked the rail line over Marias Pass since Sunday.
Justin Franz
MARIAS PASS, Mont. — BNSF Railway employees are working around the clock to clear an avalanche that has blocked the railroad’s critical Northern Transcon since Sunday night on the southern edge of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana.

BNSF spokesperson Ross Lane tells Trains News Wire that officials are hoping to reopen the Hi Line Subdivision over Marias Pass by 4 p.m. Mountain time on Tuesday. The avalanche, which socked the railroad near Summit, Mont., has delayed dozens of trains, including Amtrak’s daily Empire Builder between Chicago and Seattle-Portland, Ore.

The avalanche came at the peak of a blizzard that pummeled northwest Montana over the weekend. According to the National Weather Service, 51 inches of snow had fallen in nearby East Glacier Park through Monday afternoon and more was on the way. A winter weather advisory was in effect through Tuesday morning. The storm also closed traffic on nearby U.S. Highway 2.

The avalanche was first discovered on Sunday afternoon and since then the railroad has been using everything in its arsenal, including Jordan Spreaders, to clear the route. Some trains have been parked waiting for the line to be cleared while others have been detoured over Montana Rail Link through southern Montana. BNSF officials warn customers to expect shipment delays of 36 to 48 hours.

The two Amtrak Empire Builders that were on either side of the slide were turned back to Shelby and Whitefish, Mont., where they sat on Monday evening. Amtrak’s Marc Magliari tells Trains News Wire that some passengers would be put in hotels until the line was clear.

Lane tells Trains News Wire that the railroad knew conditions were right for avalanches in the hours before the slide came down on Sunday. In fact, railroaders in the area have decades of experience with slides in an area dubbed by locals as “avalanche alley.”

BNSF avalanche forecaster Ted Steiner told Trains in 2015 that dozens of railroaders died in avalanches in John F. Stevens canyon in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In 2004, a BNSF grain train was struck by two different avalanches east of Essex, derailing a total of 15 cars. The incident, which closed the main line for days, was the catalyst for the creation of an avalanche safety program. Since then, BNSF has worked with forecasters to predict when slides may impact the railroad in John F. Stevens Canyon. In a 4-mile stretch of track on Marias Pass, there are 12 major avalanche paths, 26 different slide starting zones and eight snow sheds. Since the program began, slides have affected the right-of-way in 2009, 2011 and 2014, when the route was closed twice in four days.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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