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Accident Report Detail

Collision and derailment of Montana Rail Link Freight Train with Locomotive Units and Hazardous Materials Release

Executive Summary

About 4:30 a.m. mountain standard time on February 2, 1989, freight cars from Montana Rail Link Inc. (MRL) westbound train 1-121-28 (train 121) rolled eastward down a mountain grade and struck a stopped helper locomotive consist, Helper 1, in Helena, Montana. The locomotive consist of train 121 included three helper units (Helper 2) and three road units positioned at the head end of a 49-car train. The crewmembers of train 121 had uncoupled the locomotive units from the train to rearrange the locomotive consist while stopped on a mountain grade. In the collision and derailment, 15 cars from train 121 derailed, including 3 tank cars containing hydrogen peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, and acetone. Hazardous material released in the accident later resulted in a fire and explosions. About 3,500 residents of Helena were evacuated. Two crewmembers of Helper 1 were only slightly injured. The estimated damage (including clean-up and lading) as a result of this accident exceeded $6 million.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the failure of the crew of train 1-121-28 to properly secure their train by placing the train brakes in emergency and applying hand brakes when it was left standing unattended on a mountain grade. Contributing to the accident was the decision of the engineer of Helper 2 to rearrange the locomotive consist and leave the train unattended on the mountain grade, and the effects of the extreme cold weather on the airbrake system of the train and the crewmembers. Also contributing was the failure of the operating management of the Montana Rail Link to adequately assess the qualifications and training of employees placed in train service. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the release and ignition of hazardous materials.

Accident Location: Helena , MT    
Accident Date: 2/2/1989
Accident ID: DCA89MRZ01

Date Adopted: 12/6/1989
NTSB Number: RAR-89-05
NTIS Number: PB89-916305