Billings Gazette: Railroad crossing safety addressed in Tester bills

by Tom Lutey

The rust brown, washboard ribbon that is Roosevelt County Road 1013 terminates at Montana’s Hi-Line without any signage. But if there was a marker it just might read “Heartache.”

Just south of the intersection, Road 1013 crosses the BNSF’s Great Northern Corridor. There have been more deaths this year at this uncontrolled rail crossing than at any other rail crossing in Montana. In May, an Amtrak passenger train hit farmer Rocky Norby as he drove his tractor though the passage. Just 10 months earlier, two men hauling oilfield waste were killed by a train in the same spot.

After Norby’s death, the state launched a review of the site to determine what made this this location so prone to tragedy. Then last week, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, of Montana and Deb Fischer, of Nebraska introduced a bill to improve safety at rural train crossings. Tester cited Bainville specifically when announcing the bill.

The senators introduced a second bill to specifically to address the dangers of parked trains blocking highway-railroad crossings, making it difficult, if not impossible, for ambulances and other emergency vehicles to respond to a crisis. The later bill called for more data about trains blocking traffic at the more than 200,000 highway rail crossings in the United States.

Sometimes, the seemingly easy solutions to rail crossing safety are anything but. What Road 1013 needs are crossing arms to stop vehicles as trains approach, say Roosevelt County Commissioners Gordon Oelkers and Gary MacDonald. It’s taken about a year to get the project rolling.

“We just last week got final approval for safety dollars to put in light and arms and we just got a final easement to put a culvert in where the bridge is. That crossing right now is closed until we get the safety work done,” Oelkers said.

All told, the cost is about $250,000. The money comes from the Federal Railroad Administration by way of Montana’s transportation department. The culvert was the unexpected linchpin to making the improvements possible.

Railroad crossing arms are only allowed at roads wide enough for two cars to pass as they approach the crossing, said MacDonald. A narrow canal bridge located a few yards from where Road 1013 crosses the tracks, made the crossing ineligible. But the canal crossing will be widened when the culvert replaces the bridge.

“It’s fairly easy, but you have to go through all the steps,” Oelkers said. “Montana has a lot of crossings that are both private and public across the rail line. They have to evaluate each one. They can’t do them all.”

The county then becomes liable for replacing the arms whenever the public knocks them off.

To Oelkers’ point, Montana does have a lot of crossings, and a considerable number of deaths on the tracks. In Roosevelt County alone, there have been 22 deaths on the tracks since 2004, and 103 accidents and incidents, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. Not all those incidents involve people, Oelkers said. Some of them are trains hitting livestock. More than 40 trains a day pass through here. Westbound, the traffic is grain trains and Bakken crude. Eastbound, the traffic is goods from the West Coast headed for the Midwest. The Great Northern Corridor is the most direct route from Seattle to Chicago, and host to the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s passenger service between the two cities.

Statewide since 2004, there have been 88 people killed on the tracks in Montana and 2,108 accidents and incidents. Not all those accidents are at grade crossings, 503 weren’t, according to FRA. The data suggests rural counties get the worst of it. In the same period Roosevelt County had 22 deaths, Montana’s most populous county, Yellowstone, had four. Missoula County had six. Both of those large counties are home to two of the largest switchyards in the state.