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By KIM BRIGGEMAN/Missoulian - Montana Rail Link has made changes in the way it moves trains in the wake of two non-fatal collisions in and around Missoula late last year.
But the railroad says it emphasizes safety and training up and down its 937 miles of track, and it remains far above industry safety and training standards.
"We're a very safe company when compared not only to other railroads, but when compared to other industries," MRL information officer Jim Lewis said.
The company recently finished interviewing the last employees involved in crashes near Bonner on Nov. 13 and in the Missoula train yard on Dec. 16.
The first resulted in brief hospitalizations of two locomotive engineers, significant damage to the lead westbound locomotive, and the derailment of 11 empty eastbound grain cars.
Thirty empty tankers tumbled on their sides in the second incident not far from Montana Rail Link headquarters on North Reserve and West Broadway.
They came on the heels of another highly public accident in July, when derailed freight cars unloaded shiny new Boeing 737 fuselages down the bank of the Clark Fork River in Mineral County west of Alberton.
"Any incident that we have we debrief it, we learn from it, we change policies and procedures that need to be changed," Lewis said. "In both the most recent cases of the Missoula yards and Bonner, there were policies and procedures that were changed."
Ongoing investigations as well as employee and union issues precluded him from revealing specifics of the changes, he said.
The wrecks have heightened interest in MRL's everyday operations, which tend to fly below the radar.
At a December Missoula City Council meeting, Ward 2 councilman Jordan Hess raised the issue of rail cars deemed unsafe by the National Transportation Safety Board that are being used to haul crude oil from the Bakken across the country.
On Thursday, MRL opened its normally locked-down dispatch center and train yard tower to Hess, Ward 1 Councilman Bryan von Lossberg and the Missoulian.
Lewis, who replaced longtime MRL information officer Lynda Frost in early November, called on eight department heads to explain Rail Link's safety and operational procedures. And he told Hess and Von Lossberg the company would be willing to have other council members visit for a similar tour.
"We're proud of what we do," Lewis said. "We feel like we run a very good railroad, so it's good to showcase that. But it's also good to lift the veil to let people know what we do."
Hess said he was pleased "but not surprised" to learn more about the safety culture in place at Rail Link. And he was especially happy to hear of the short - line rail company's support for federal restrictions on outmoded cars that carry crude oil in the wake of disasters in Quebec and North Dakota in 2013.
Railroads in the U.S. have a common carrier obligation. That means by federal regulation they must accept whatever loads they're given and whenever it's given to them, Lewis said. The company and the railroad industry support tighter regulation of the cars that haul crude.
"This really goes to the heart of my concerns all along," Hess said, "not so much about individual railroads, but about the DOT111 cars. I was very glad to see there's common concern among railroads and among local officials that those cars have some issues."
Controversial as they are, crude oil trains comprised less than 1 percent of train traffic on MRL lines. Fifty-three trains hauling crude passed through Missoula last year.
Don Smith, who as transportation director oversees the dispatch office and service crew operations at MRL, said those trains are treated with special care. He said the railroad is the only one he knows that requires dispatchers to make voice contact with both a crude train and one it's about to pass.
In such situations, the crude carrier is required to slow to 20 mph and the other must be stopped on a siding.
"Another thing we do with crude oil trains which is kind of unheard of is, once the temperature gets to zero or below, we don't run them over our mountainous territory," Smith said.
On the heels of the 2013 disasters - a runaway train in Quebec that exploded and killed 47 people; a loaded oil train that slammed into a grain car in North Dakota, resulting in an other-worldly explosion involving 26 tankers - the U.S. Department of Transportation placed emergency orders into effect governing the transport of crude.
Lewis said the American Association of Railroads implemented a set of voluntary measures beyond those orders that Rail Link also follows.
"And in addition to that, there are 18 other voluntary measures Montana Rail Link has taken above and beyond those recommendations," he said.
Men in charge of safety and track maintenance, locomotives and train cars, employee training, the dispatch center and the Missoula train yard painted a picture of a company imbued in what most referred to as a culture of safety. They stressed it with anecdotes and statistics.
Safety manager Casey Calkins said nationwide reportable accidents are down nearly 80 percent since 1980.
"Some of that is federal oversight, but a lot of it is railroads taking ownership of their own safety culture and recognizing the need for change," Calkins said.
Derailments and other wrecks at Rail Link, which went into business in 1987, have dropped 27 percent in the past 10 years.
Calkins touted other encouraging numbers for his line:
Through the first nine months of 2014, the company registered 13 reportable accidents - those resulting in damages of $10,500 or more. That was a rate of 3.6 per million train miles. The handful of comparable Class II railroads in the nation averaged almost twice that, at 6.84.
MRL's injury frequency in 2014 was 1.18 per 100 employees (MRL employs about 1,200). In 2013, comparable rates in other industries such as natural resources and mining, construction, manufacturing and private industries were between 3.3 and 4.
Mike Lemm, vice president in charge of operations, told of a trip he and other MRL executives made to South Carolina in 2006 when, he said, "our (safety) numbers weren't where we wanted them to be."
They visited Norfolk Southern, a Class 1 line that was recognized for 27 years in a row as the safest large railroad in the country. The takeaway?
"We were doing a lot of the same things they were, we just hadn't been doing them as long," said Lemm. "They said don't make it a flavor of the month. Stick with it and pretty soon you'll see the results. Just be consistent. That's what we've done all these years. We haven't really changed a lot of what our safety culture is, and now the employees and everybody know this is the way it is every day."
Operations and drug testing, recertification requirements, track maintenance and reinvestment at Montana Rail Link all exceed federal requirements, the department heads said.
They stressed the two forms of voice communication track dispatchers have available with engineers all along the line, from Huntley Project on the east end to Spokane on the west, and the ultrasonic test cars that look for inclusions and other defects in the rails and run almost continuously.
Lewis said it's a misconception that the number of trains on the MRL line is increasing rapidly. The daily average has risen from 14.1 in 2011 to 17.8, and the average number of crude oil trains has risen by about half a train.
Line capacity, and how to increase it, is a constant topic of discussion, Lewis said. Rail Link has invested $11 million of its annual $60 million capital budget the past two years in additional trackage.
"We feel like we could get into that 24-26 (trains a day) range, without investing a lot of money into capacity projects," he said. "To get past that point, we're talking big bucks. We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars."
There's also geographical limitations to expansion, specifically the 131-year-old Mullan Tunnel northwest of Helena. It underwent an $18 million expansion in 2009 to accommodate larger trains and keep modern locomotives from overheating, but serves as a choke point on the MRL line.
"We're not going to be able to punch another tunnel through the Continental Divide," Lewis said.
The crash near the Clark Fork River and the old Milltown Dam site in November occurred on a frigid night when the westbound train clipped the back end of an eastbound train that hadn't cleared the main line.
The cause of the accident remains under investigation, but questions immediately rose about the proficiency of the Montana Rail Link engineers driving the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train.
"There were rumors that guys were getting into locomotives untrained," Lewis said. "We hear that and we go, how can that be out there when we go above and beyond in so many areas of training compared to other railroads in the country?"
Montana Rail Link engineers are required to go through a hands-on training program of seven months.
"That's almost twice as long as some of the bigger 'roads," said Mark Smith, superintendent of operations.
Smith said he is facing a growing attrition rate of locomotive engineers who have reached or are nearing the end of their careers.
"We're getting into some critical years here between now and probably (2017) where we're going to see this group of 30 years of service and 60 years of age that will be kind of migrating out," he said.
"We've been looking to fill that in advance and get these folks in here and get them trained, so when those guys leave we've got people who can step into their seats and have the experience they need to run the trains."
Lewis said vandalism is rare on MRL lines and it had nothing to do with either of the two recent collisions.
It was "pure coincidence" that the crashes involved empty grain cars and empty tankers instead of loaded ones. He pointed to the safety features on the 30 tankers in the Missoula yard that allowed them to remain coupled even as they rolled on their sides.
"If they were loaded, we would expect the same outcome," he said.
MRL understands that "the public is looking in and say, boy, what's happening here?" Lewis allowed.
"We want to assure the public and assure the communities we operate through that we take safety so seriously," he said. "One accident is too many. Our goal is zero-zero: zero accidents, zero injuries."