Protesters at the Madison Street railroad crossing knew in advance Sunday that a loaded coal train was coming down the line.
What they didn’t know, said Nick Engelfried of the Blue Skies Campaign and 350 Missoula, was that it wasn’t going to stop.
“I don’t think any of us ever felt like we were in imminent danger, but I think it is a safety concern that the train wasn’t stopping as it came toward us,” Engelfried said.
He was one of seven people sitting trackside who were charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and ushered away by police as the westbound train of more than a mile in length slowly approached.
In all, some two dozen protesters from Blue Skies and 350 Missoula were on the scene, bearing signs and banners and demonstrating their opposition to coal exports.
The protesters had a spotter several miles up the tracks to signal the train’s approach, and Engelfried said Montana Rail Link was notified of the demonstration when the train reached a point “somewhere between Bonner and East Missoula.”
“MRL didn’t really know what was going to happen there, so apparently they were just counting on the fact that a dangerous situation wasn’t going to come up,” he said. “But there is a safety concern when you’ve got peaceful participants that close to the tracks and you don’t stop the train, even if it is moving slowly.”
MRL is close-mouthed about its procedures when advised in advance of protesters on or near its tracks. The company, one of the independently operated Washington Companies founded by Missoula industrialist Dennis Washington, issued a statement Wednesday saying only that it will work with local law enforcement to arrest and prosecute trespassers on its private property.
“As always, our major concern is for the safety of those living in the communities in which we serve – and the safety and welfare of our employees,” MRL spokeswoman Lynda Frost said in an email.
Engelfried was among demonstrators at a similar trackside protest in Helena in September, when no trains showed up.
“My perception was it looked like they were intentionally not bringing trains through there at that time” because of the demonstration, he said. “I don’t know if it’s a difference between Helena and Missoula.”
Frost wouldn’t say if there was a difference, but MRL is bound to face the dilemma more often as coal train protests amp up.
Both 350 Missoula and Blue Skies Campaign have posted online notice of a statewide “day of action” on April 26 called “Montanans for Climate Solutions.” In Missoula, the rally is set for the red X’s at the north end of Higgins Avenue, conspicuously close to the Montana Rail Link tracks.
“There’s nothing really concrete and specific yet,” Engelfried said, “but we are definitely planning to hold more direct actions like this in the future, especially as coal train traffic continues to increase and the associated health and environmental hazards continue to increase.”