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After 3rd death in a year, Montana Hi-Line rail crossing to be reviewed

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Amtrak crash

Crews work on the tracks after an Amtrak train collided with a tractor west of Bainville on May 29.

Several recent fatal crashes involving trains on a heavily trafficked rural road east of Culbertson have prompted the Montana Department of Transportation to review the safety of the railroad crossing.

Weeks after the latest fatal crash involving a train that killed a 65-year-old Sidney man, the Montana Department of Transportation, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Roosevelt County will open a "diagnostic review" of the crossing’s safety.

Recent crashes

On May 29, an Amtrak passenger train hit Rocky Norby's tractor while he was crossing the tracks at Road 1013 about 9 miles east of Culbertson. Driving a John Deere tractor, Norby died on impact.

The crash derailed the train, which the Montana Highway Patrol estimated was traveling at about 75 mph, and slightly injured many of the 64 passengers. The crash sent three crew members to the hospital.

On June 3, the funeral for Norby filled the Richland County fairgrounds.

Everyone was welcome at the event, which gained the approval of the county’s health board. For those unable to attend, the funeral was streamed on Facebook.

Although a shock, for locals the crash wasn’t necessarily a surprise.

The communities of Bainville and Culbertson, which have a combined population of just more than 1,000, had already seen three fatalities on that stretch of railroad in the past 10 months.

In August, Caleb Fell, 21, and Bryan Pederson, 18, died at the railroad crossing on Road 1013.

The two young men, employees of Oil Waste Logistics, were hauling radioactive waste for the Culbertson company.

Pederson, the driver, didn't yield to an oncoming train, according to a Montana Highway Patrol investigation. Both men died on scene.

Two weeks later a train hit a semi and killed the driver at a railroad crossing just west of Road 1013.

Safety concerns

Locals remember numerous crashes at the railroad crossing, some serious and some lethal.

Memory stretches back to 1984 for Jason LaQua, founder and president of Oil Waste Logistics, who recalls a crash that year that left one dead. 

The railroad crossing at Road 1013 was set up for failure, LaQua said.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm of not being safe, and there’s no flashing lights or arms or anything like that,” he said.

The crossing lacks enough safety measures to allow for a landscape that makes the stretch of railroad nearly impossible to detect an oncoming train.

A narrow bridge approaches the crossing at a downward incline. Aside from a crossbuck sign there’s no indication of the crossing, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Trees to either side of the crossing block views of the tracks and to the south a dirt mound obstructs the line, LaQua said.

The rural road is without street lamps or signal lights.

The busy Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, which runs along Highway 2, sees an average of about 25 trains per day, said spokesperson Courtney Wallace. Typically two Amtrak passenger trains travel the line daily.

After four fatalities, a train derailment and other minor crashes, locals are advocating for more safety measures.

“You’re not going to find anybody here that says there shouldn’t be railroad crossing arms,” LaQua said.

Increasing safety

Last fall the county voted to replace and widen the bridge just north of the tracks, which serves as the approach to the crossing, said Roosevelt County Commissioner Gordon Oelkers.

Construction on the bridge should begin as soon as the county gets a BNSF permit, he said. The project has already been bid out. 

“The approach had to be fixed before we apply and push for a study for arms,” Oelkers said.

With a bridge project in mind, the county had already been in talks with the Montana Department of Transportation about conducting a safety study on the railroad crossing. The goal is to get crossing arms, he said. 

“There’s huge concern,” he said. “The trouble with that is it’s a slow process.”

Installing the new bridge should be more than $200,000.

County funding had been set aside and Oelkers is confident that federal funding will come through for the crossing arms, which he estimates will cost about $300,000.

The cost of the crossing arms or signals are typically funded through the Section 130 Program, according to Lori Ryan, the public information officer for the Montana Department of Transportation.

The program provides funds for the elimination of hazards at railway-highway crossings, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Formal study

On Monday, Ryan said a safety review would begin on the crossing at Road 1013 to determine if extra safety measures are needed.

“Upon further details of this crash, a diagnostic review process will be initiated,” Ryan said in an email.

Ryan did not have details as to when the study would begin, saying additional details on the most recent fatal crash were needed before a timeline is found.

The review will be the ‘determining factor’ on any safety improvements, Ryan said.

LaQua also thinks safety should be increased at the next railroad crossing just west of Road 1013.

In October, Moses Godwin, 36, of Texas, died at the railroad crossing. Godwin was hauling gravel in a semi-truck when he turned left onto Road 1015 from Highway 2. As he crossed the tracks he was hit and killed by a train.

When asked if the commission was pushing for extra safety at the other railroad crossing, Oelkers said no.

“There are a lot of at-grade crossings. You look at them as the need arises,” he said. “We don’t have any radar right now.”

The families of Pederson and Fell are also advocating for extra safety at the crossing, according to personal injury lawyer Daniel Bidegaray who is representing the two families.

Bidegaray said that the families are considering pursuing a lawsuit against BNSF to “make these high-risk crossings safer.”

Aside from adequate safety measures, like crossing arms or a signal, Bidegaray said that maintenance is needed at the crossing that the Montana Department of Transportation has failed to do.

“At minimum it needs a light, if not crossing arms," Bidegaray said. 

For LaQua, who lost two of his employees in August, increased safety is imperative.

“If there were flashing lights and flashing arms, nobody would have died at these intersections,” he said.

Photos: Amtrak crash near Bainville

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