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Rail safety questioned after toxic Ohio train wreck

Posted at 8:31 AM, Mar 17, 2023

An explosive train wreck in Ohio last month has brought increased scrutiny on the nation’s railroads regarding safety, including here in Montana, which has seen its share of headline-grabbing derailments over the decades.

In the weeks since that derailment, an industry that normally operates in the background has been pushed into the national spotlight by people worried about what would happen if a similar incident occurred in their community. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress in hopes of making the nation’s railroads safer, despite assurances from the industry that 99% of hazardous materials shipped by rail arrive at their destination without incident.

But in Montana, worries about rail safety are nothing new, especially a decade after an increase of fossil fuel shipments out of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields brought more train traffic to Big Sky Country — and more fears about what would happen if one of those trains jumped the tracks, according to a report by the Montana Free Press.

BNSF Railway employees respond to a derailment near Olney in March 2014.


On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train traveling through East Palestine, Ohio, about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh, derailed and caught fire.

Norfolk Southern is one of North America’s “Big Seven” Class I railroads that own and operate the vast majority of track in North America. Also among the Big Seven is BNSF Railway, which controls more than half of Montana’s rail lines, and will have even more by year’s end when it reassumes control of track currently operated byMontana Rail Link, which had leased the line from BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern in the 1980s. Another Class I railroad, Union Pacific, also operates in Montana, though its footprint in the state is much smaller.

The derailment in East Palestine was one of more than 1,000 train derailments that occur in the United States annually, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, the vast majority of which are minor and never make headlines. Among the 38 cars that derailed in East Palestine, five were carrying vinyl chloride, a hazardous material used to make plastic products. Three days after the derailment, those cars were still burning and emergency officials grew concerned they might explode. To avoid that, the railroad conducted a “controlled release” whereby the material was dumped and then burned, sending a thick black plume of smoke over the evacuated community.

Within hours of the train’s derailment, the National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team of investigators to the site to determine what happened. While the full investigation is expected to take months, an initial review by the NTSB found that the East Palestine derailment was likely caused by a defect with one of the train’s freight cars. Since the Feb. 3 derailment, the NTSB has sent investigators to two other incidents involving Norfolk Southern in Ohio, including one last week where an employee was killed. On March 7, the NTSB announced that it was opening a rare “special investigation” into Norfolk Southern’s safety culture.

The Association of American Railroads, the trade group that represents all of the major railroads, notes that in general railroads have gotten safer in recent decades. Since 2000, the number of derailments has dropped 31%, though there was a slight increase in such incidents between 2021 and 2022. The trade group also notes that 99% of all hazardous material shipments arrive at their final destination without incident.

But that isn’t always the case, including in Montana, which has seen multiple high-profile — and even explosive — derailments in the last 35 years.

On Feb. 2, 1989, 49 cars from a Montana Rail Link freight train rolled down Mullan Pass and crashed into locomotives sitting near Carroll College in Helena. Three of the cars that derailed contained hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol and acetone. Those cars caught fire and later exploded, shattering windows across Helena and forcing the evacuation of more than 3,500 people. Two railroad employees were injured.

Members of the Kalispell Fire Department conducted training exercises simulating a fuel leak in a railroad tank car in Whitefish in September 2013

Just six months later, on July 31, 1989, a Burlington Northern train derailed above Whitefish Lake, sending four tank cars into Mackinaw Bay, spilling between 20,000 and 25,000 gallons of fuel. Burlington Northern and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality spent months excavating soil from the site, but 20 years later additional cleanup was needed when a new soil sample from the site contained petroleum hydrocarbons.

On April 11, 1996, all 400 residents of Alberton, plus an additional 600 from the surrounding area, had to be evacuated when a Montana Rail Link train derailed before dawn due to a broken rail. One car containing chlorine exploded, releasing 130,000 pounds of the poison gas into the air. A transient riding the train died from acute chlorine toxicity and approximately 350 people were treated for chlorine inhalation.

More recently, on Sept. 25, 2021, three people were killed when Amtrak’s Empire Builder passenger train derailed on a remote stretch of track west of Havre. It was the deadliest railroad accident in the United States in four years. Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board released a trove of documents relating to the wreck that suggested it might have been caused by a track defect. A full report into the wreck is expected to be released in the coming months.


According to the Association of American Railroads, more than 40,000 carloads of chemicals, petroleum, and petroleum-related products move over America’s rails every month. Under a federal provision called the “common carrier” obligation, railroads are required to transport any material a customer contracts for, including hazardous materials.

Among the commodities railroads have long moved is crude oil. In the mid-2000s, America’s railroads moved upwards of 6,000 cars of oil annually. But starting in the early 2010s, those numbers began to increase dramatically, thanks to the Bakken oil boom in eastern Montana and North Dakota. By 2013, railroads were moving more than 400,000 carloads of crude. The increase was noticed by few people until a tragedy in Quebec in the summer of 2013. Early on the morning of July 6, 2013, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling much of the downtown. The Lac-Mégantic incident was the first of a series of explosive derailments involving oil trains around North America in the 2010s. In response, both the United States and Canada ordered railroads to begin replacing older tank cars with newer ones that were less likely to rupture in the event of an accident. That replacement program is still ongoing.

Much of the oil that was being produced in the Bakken was moving west through Montana, and by 2014 about a dozen oil trains were passing through the state every week, bound for refineries on the West Coast. Many of those westbound trains traveled along the southern edge of Glacier National Park, raising concerns about what would happen if a train were to derail or catch fire there. Among those raising the alarm was then-Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow. Mow was no stranger to oil spills, having helped investigate the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and served as a Department of Interior incident commander during the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

“There would be severe consequences of a derailment near the park, whether it sparkes a fire or spills oil,” Mow told the Flathead Beacon in 2014. “We need to be prepared for it.”

Soon after, BNSF began creating a “Geographical Response Plan” for how it would respond to an oil train derailment near Glacier National Park. Today, the railroad has numerous such plans targeted at environmentally sensitive areas across Montana and the West.

Lena Kent, a spokesperson for BNSF, told Montana Free Press that as part of its derailment preparations it has a network of more than 150 hazardous materials responders and advisers in place to deal with spills. It also has emergency response equipment — stockpiles of containment booms and other materials — at more than 100 locations across its 32,000-mile rail network. The railroad also hosts online and in-person training sessions across the network to teach first responders how to deal with railroad accidents. Kent said the company trains anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 people annually.

“BNSF is committed to working closely with first responders in the rare event that an incident were to occur,” Kent said.

Kent declined to comment on how many oil trains travel through Montana on BNSF presently, or what other hazardous materials the railroad moves, citing security. However, data from the Association of American Railroads suggests that the number of oil trains passing places like Glacier National Park has dropped since the mid-2010s, especially as more pipelines were constructed. In 2014, during the Bakken oil boom, U.S. railroads were originating more than 493,000 carloads of crude oil annually. But by 2021, that had dropped to just over 91,000 carloads.

Railway oil train near Browning in September 2017. 

While BNSF would not publicly comment on how much hazardous material it is moving through the state, it is required by law to share that information with states, and the information is provided to emergency responders as well. The industry has also produced an app that first responders can use to see what a specific car is loaded with in case of a derailment.

Among those who would respond to a train wreck is Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino, who also serves as the county’s director of emergency services. Heino said his office meets with BNSF multiple times per year for training sessions and tabletop exercises to prepare for a derailment. Just a few weeks ago, on Feb. 8, BNSF held a training near Flathead Lake about what to do if a train spilled fuel on an ice-covered river or lake.

Heino said that while incidents like the derailment in Ohio last month concern him — and noted that it’s nearly impossible to prepare for every possible scenario — he believes his team is ready in case there ever is a derailment in Flathead County.

“Through preparation and training, I feel like we have a good plan in place should there ever be an incident here,” he said.

One group that is keeping a close eye on the movement of hazardous materials through northwestern Montana is Oil Safe Flathead, a coalition of conservation groups raising awareness about the movement of oil-by-rail through the region. The group, which is a project of the Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the watershed, has called on BNSF to increase inspections of its rail line along the Flathead River as well as build more infrastructure to protect trains from avalanches. The group has also questioned how realistic it would be to contain oil spilled into the Flathead River, especially if the river was running fast and high.

Onno Wieringa, president of the Flathead Lakers board of directors, said events like the East Palestine incident are a reminder of the dangerous commodities traveling by rail all across the country. While he said there is nothing a group like his can do to stop the movement of oil-by-rail through environmentally sensitive areas, it can encourage companies like BNSF to do it as safely as possible. Wieringa also credited BNSF for maintaining an active avalanche forecasting program on Marias Pass, where slides have impacted the rail line before.

“Derailing a train is the last thing a company like BNSF wants to do,” Wieringa said.


Railroads are overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation. The FRA has railroad inspectors across the country who examine locomotives, rolling stock, track, signals, grade crossings and more.

FRA inspectors also work in concert with state inspectors, including Montana Public Service Commission Railroad Program Manager Daniel Sherwood. The PSC has two rail inspectors, one in Helena and one in Billings, with authority to conduct inspections anywhere on Montana’s 3,680 miles of track. Sherwood told MTFP that presently his department currently inspects only locomotives and cars, ensuring that equipment meets standards laid out by the federal government. In 2022, the PSC’s two inspectors spent 202 days in the field, resulting in 268 inspection reports, 1,146 defects recorded and one violation fine. Sherwood said a defect is “any condition out of compliance with federal regulations,” and that fines are handed out only when a defect is “egregious.” In 2021, PSC inspectors spotted 1,382 defects and issued no fines. In 2020, there were 1,171 defects reported and two violation fines issued in the state.

A BNSF Railway oil train is seen along the Flathead River near Columbia Falls in February 2023.

Kent, the BNSF spokesperson, said the railroad regularly inspects all components of its network, including locomotives, freight cars, track and bridges, using both human inspectors and autonomous technology. Railroads also use something called “defect detectors” that can spot problems on a passing train, including overheated wheel bearings, which according to an initial investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board may have caused the derailment in Ohio.

According to the Association of American Railroads, most Class I railroads have hot bearing detectors no less than 40 miles apart, though in many instances the detectors are even closer together. Following the Ohio incident, however, the Association of American Railroads announced that its member railroads would begin spacing the detectors every 15 miles on key routes. The organization estimated that the industry would end up installing 1,000 new detectors across the country as a result of its renewed effort to have “zero incidents and zero injuries.”

That “zero incidents” goal comes as pressure builds on the industry as a whole, especially in Washington D.C., where bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would put new regulations on railroads. The Railway Safety Act of 2023 was unveiled by U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, with the baking of four other senators from both parties. The bill would require defect detectors to be spaced every 10 miles, establish new inspection protocols, increase safety violation fines and require at least two crew members on every freight train. The last part will likely draw ire from railroad executives, who have said in the past that with the right technology they believe trains can be run with just one person. But unions and many railroaders in the field disagree, saying two people onboard can respond to problems faster. In fact, train crew size was a major sticking point during last year’s contentious labor contract talks that almost ended in a nationwide rail strike.

Already, officials with the Association of American Railroads have signaled that they would not support the new regulations proposed in Congress, telling The Hill they didn’t believe the proposals would have prevented the Ohio wreck. However, President Joe Biden has said he will sign the act into law if it arrives at his desk.

Montana’s own congress members have yet to take a stand on the proposal. Representatives for both Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines said the senators are reviewing the legislation. A spokesperson for Montana Republican Rep. Ryan Zinke said that if legislation emerges within the House of Representatives, he would consider it. Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale had not responded to a request for comment by the time this story went to press.

There is a famous saying in railroading — “the rules have been written in blood” — attributed to a 1901 report by the Michigan Railroad Commission. The idea was that nothing changes until someone gets hurt, or worse. That adage rings true even in the modern era. In September 2008, 25 people were killed when a commuter train ran head-on into a freight train near Los Angeles. A month later, Congress passed the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, requiring the installation of crash-prevention technology now known as Positive Train Control. Whether or not the wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, will spur a similar reaction remains to be seen.