Thursday, February 09, 2017

Avalanche closes Montana line again

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File photo of Amtrak's Empire Builder. File photo of Amtrak's Empire Builder. Amtrak

Rail traffic through the Rockies in Northern Montana on Thursday was blocked by an avalanche, just days after freight and passenger trains resumed operations following a similar event.

On Thursday, BNSF spokesman Ross Lane informed Railway Age, "Earlier this morning, an avalanche occurred above the rail grade near railroad milepost 1162, which is near Essex, Mont. Out of safety, we have suspended all rail traffic through the corridor. We do not yet have an estimated time to reopen the line. Dangerous avalanche conditions exist due to warming temperatures and rainfall on top of the heavy snow received earlier in the week. These conditions are creating unstable layers in the snowpack. We will continue to follow the protocols outlined in our Avalanche Safety Program and will continue to evaluate snowpack conditions throughout the day."

In a separate announcement, the Flathead Avalanche Center said, "BNSF Avalanche Safety Team reported natural avalanche activity in their program area. One large magnitude avalanche deposited 6-8 feet of debris that was 150 feet wide on the rail grade and it also reached the highway. The powder blast from the avalanche was evident 25 feet up a power pole."

Amtrak's Empire Builder service, which was suspended for several days earlier this week due to previous avalanches on Marias Pass, has two trains approaching the pass today. Train No.8 was eastbound between Libby and Whitefish as of 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time, while No.7 was near Wolf Point. It's not yet known how long passengers will be delayed or whether they will be bussed around the affected area.

–Bruce Kelly contributed to this story.

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