Monday, February 06, 2017

BNSF re-opens Montana line after avalanche

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

Freight shipments could be delayed as much as 48 hours through the Montana Rockies as BNSF re-opened the Northern Corridor route late Tuesday after an avalanche blocked tracks and temporarily stranded two Amtrak trains over the weekend.

Freight customers of BNSF may experience delays of 36 to 48 hours on shipments moving through the area, the railroad stated. It had rerouted some freight traffic over a southern route via Montana Rail Link.

Late on Feb. 7, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told Railway Age, "We just received word from BNSF that we will originate tomorrow’s (Wednesday’s) Empire Builder trains to operate normally over their full route, reaching Idaho and Montana on Thursday."

The avalanche at Marias Pass damaged tracks near Summit, Mont. on Sunday. Amtrak’s train No. 8, the eastbound Empire Builder traveling from Seattle to Chicago, was initially stopped at Essex, Mont., and was later moved back to Whitefish. The No.7 westbound Empire Builder out of Chicago was stopped at Browning, Mont., before being moved east to Cut Bank. 

Magliari said that Train No.7 was eventually moved even further east to Shelby, Mont., where there's more support services and personnel in place to handle the needs of passengers. Plus, Shelby is located on an interstate highway, which became a necessary part of getting passengers around the affected area due to U.S. Highway 2 also being impacted by the avalanche.

Passengers on Train No.8 were given the option of returning by train to their point of origin or continuing eastward on chartered bus from Spokane, Wash., to Shelby via Interstates 90 and 15. Passengers who had been stranded since Sunday on Train 7 in Shelby would then board those buses for Spokane. 

Both stranded trains were re-stocked with food and supplies while in Whitefish and Shelby. Magliari said, "We provided complimentary breakfast, lunch, and dinner for both coach and sleeping car passengers." He noted that meals are normally included in the fare for sleeping accommodations anyway.

When asked why arrangements weren't made to detour the Empire Builder around the avalanche-impacted area by way of Montana Rail Link, Magliari said that while Amtrak does utilize alternate routes when they can be properly scheduled and crewed in advance of known closures (such as track maintenance on its regular routes), detouring at this time via MRL would have proven difficult. With BNSF already rerouting a number of its own trains via MRL, Magliari said that option has become highly congested, and is also being stretched thin for crew members who would be needed to pilot any detouring passenger trains over what is normally a freight-only route.

– Contributing Editor Bruce Kelly provided information for this story.

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