Railroading in Avalanche Alley

Men, machines and science battle the elements to keep BNSF Railway’s Marias Pass route open.

By Justin Franz

trn151201For 12 hours, heavy, wet snow had been falling in John F. Stevens Canyon, near Essex, Mont. Finally, late on the night of March 2, 2014, the weight of the new snowfall became too much for its supporting base. In a matter of seconds, a mass of snow and ice was cascading thousands of feet down the side of a mountain, picking up anything in its path.

Not long after the avalanche crashed to a halt, a BNSF Railway employee driving a
piece of maintenance-of-way equipment came around a corner on the railroad’s Marias Pass line and was confronted by a 7-foot wall of snow, ice, and trees. BNSF’s main line to the Pacific Northwest was closed.

As unsettling as the sight might have been, it did not come as a complete surprise. Managers, dispatchers, and maintenance-of-way workers were informed hours earlier that avalanches were about to come crashing down the side of the canyon thanks to Ted Steiner, an avalanche safety specialist contracted by BNSF every winter. From November to April, Steiner and a small team of experts based out of Essex are tasked with keeping BNSF’s main line across northwest Montana safe in an area railroaders call “Avalanche Alley.”

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This story appeared in the December 2015 issue of Trains Magazine.