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locomotive fire

A locomotive burst into flame earlier this week near the spot of the disastrous Alberton chlorine spill in 1996, but this time there were no hazardous materials on board the train.

No one was injured in the latest in a string of mishaps since April on the Montana Rail Link, which runs from Idaho to east of Billings.

Frenchtown Rural Fire spokesman Mel Holtz said the Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine was the middle of three pulling a general merchandise stack container train eastward toward Missoula. The fire was reported by the MRL crew at around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Holtz said the fire department responded to the scene a few miles west of Alberton at the end of Plateau Road. 

Heavy smoke and then flames were showing and were easily visible from Interstate 90 when firefighters arrived. Two crew members separated the locomotives from the rest of the train, Holtz said, "but with the diesel electric it was a little tricky making sure everything was shut down.”

It was roughly 40 minutes before the diesel pumps could be turned off and the fire dissipated enough to get water on it. After that it was extinguished within 10 minutes.

Montana Rail Link spokesman Jim Lewis said rail traffic in both directions was held up for roughly four hours, delaying four trains. The line reopened shortly before 10 p.m. 

MRL did the initial investigation into the fire's cause. Lewis said the locomotive was to be shipped to a BNSF shop to complete the investigation.

In early April an MRL employee, 57-year-old Richard Schmitz, died in a collision between a train and the small utility vehicle Schmitz was driving in the Missoula yard beneath the Scott Street Bridge. The crash was ruled accidental by a Missoula County coroner.

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The body of Alan Jay Willis, 65, of Minneapolis was found by MRL employees near the east end of the Mullan Tunnel northwest of Helena on July 29. A Lewis and Clark County deputy coroner said Willis died of multiple blunt-force traumas caused by a freight train. A backpack and water bottle belonging to Willis were found on a train in Drummond later in the day.

On Saturday a man escaped with minor injuries Saturday when a train clipped the rear end of his van at a fishing access site near Springdale, between Big Timber and Livingston. According to news reports, Montana Highway Patrol said the train was traveling an estimated 30 mph when it hit the vehicle, which had paused on the tracks as its driver watched a couple of motorcyclists near Interstate 90. The van was spun around and thrown into the air. It landed on its side 20 feet down the road.

Holtz said the Alberton incident was the first response to a train locomotive emergency since he started with the Frenchtown department in 2004. In April 1996 a 19-car derailment released some 60 tons of poisonous chlorine gas, killing one person, hospitalizing at least 11, and forcing the evacuation of 500 people and the closure of I-90.

“Montana Rail Link actually came out five or six months ago just to put on a class on locomotive emergencies, and fire was part of it,” Holtz said. “That helped a lot.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian