Montana Rail Link officials began cleaning up Tuesday after intentionally derailing a runaway freight train that rolled for nearly 50 miles through the Clark Fork River Valley.
“We had the heavy equipment arrive this afternoon, which will enable us to begin removing the train from the main line,” Lynda Frost, spokeswoman for Rail Link, said Tuesday. “The main line remains closed, but we hope to have it open by 4 o’clock tomorrow.”
The 107-car train was intentionally derailed Monday night in the Rock Creek area eight miles east of Clinton.
Officials were still trying to determine how the runaway happened.
“I don’t know whether the brakes were inappropriately set or whether there was an equipment failure,” Rail Link attorney Ron MacDonald said. “The door is open to either human error or equipment failure.”
Forty-seven cars derailed, many of them loaded with lumber. Some skidded to a stop within 40 yards of the westbound lanes of Interstate 90.
There were no injuries, but electrical service in the region was disrupted and the interstate highway was temporarily closed.
At least 16 empty tanker cars, 10 of which carried small amounts of alcohol or gasoline, were among those derailed.
An “empty” car contains residual material until it is purged. While that residual material can often measure several hundred gallons, Frost said the gasoline and alcohol cars had so little residual material their contents could not be measured.
Paul Laisy, operations chief for the Missoula County Rural Fire Department, said firefighters were on hand with water and foam for the cleanup.
“The majority of tanker cars that were piled up were a combination of corn syrup, some alcohol and some gasoline tankers,” Laisy said. “They have a possibility of fire, and they are considered a hazardous material environmentally, as they can seep into the ground.”
There were two hazardous materials tankers on the train, but both were empty and remained upright, railroad officials said.
The eastbound train was traveling backward when it was derailed in an area of sparse population and as far from the Clark Fork River as possible. MacDonald said the derailment site was “very intentionally selected” to minimize damage to the surrounding area. The switch was activated by remote control from the Missoula headquarters, he said.
The train went through Drummond without incident. MacDonald said Rail Link was confident it would stay on the tracks.
Montana Power Co. said a 100,000-volt transmission line was knocked out at 6:58 p.m. by the derailment, disrupting power to Drummond, Philipsburg, Georgetown Lake and surrounding areas. Power was restored at 7:21 p.m., said spokesman Cort Freeman.
From Garrison, the eastbound train traveled 46 miles backward before it was derailed at the Bonita rail spur.
Dan Watts, Rail Link’s vice president of operations, said the eastbound train had stopped at Garrison to add a locomotive before beginning the climb to the Continental Divide. The crew was off the train when it began rolling backward, he said during a news conference in Clinton.