Mangled Mess

40 coal train cars derail in Columbus, more than 4,500 tons of coal involved
Marlo Pronovost
Wednesday, September 26, 2018

SCN photo Ardona Robbins


SCN photo Ardona Robbins

SCN photo Ardona Robbins

SCN photo Ardona Robbins

See more photos in the gallery at the bottom of our homepage.

Emergency and Montana Rail Link (MRL) crews rushed to the scene of a coal train derailment in Columbus Tuesday night, involving approximately 40 cars on MRL’s mainline, toward the west end of the city.

No injuries, environmental or health risks were initially reported, according to Stillwater County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Carol Arkell. MRL is now working with state and federal agencies to mitigate any possible issues with the spillage of the coal, some of which went into a channel of the Yellowstone River. Coal itself is not considered a hazardous material.

Both railroad crossings in Columbus were temporarily shut down, as train cars had to remain on the track to allow emergency crews to work the scene.

By 3:40 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, the mainline had been cleared and repaired and train traffic resumed, according to MRL’s Jim Lewis. Clean-up efforts will continue with “an action plan developed to remove all debris,” according to a MRL news release.

MRL crews began clean-up work at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, with the assistance of portable lighting and heavy machinery. Working in the early morning darkness, crews grabbed and uprighted each individual coal car one at a time.

What coal was not spilled during the derailment was being removed by heavy machinery, as part of the clean-up process. Lewis explained that the cars are destroyed and will not be “re-railed”  — meaning put back on the tracks. Instead, all the wreckage debris will be cleared from the scene. It would also be difficult to lift a loaded coal car, due to its weight, said Lewis.

An estimated 4,720 tons of coal was involved in the incident.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation. That investigation, as well as the clean-up, is all being handled by MRL because the derailment took place on railroad property. 

Lewis also asked the public to stay clear of the area, as it is very congested and filled with large machinery and workers in a relatively small area. MRL credited the hard work of more than 60 MRL workers and contractors with being able to get the track cleared and repaired so quickly. The company also thanked the city, the county, state and federal agencies involved in the response to the incident.


Tuesday night’s derailment and subsequent blocked railroad crossing in Columbus brought forth an issue that has long been a concern of many in emergency services. When the crossings were blocked, at least one Columbus Police Officer and one Stillwater County Sheriff’s Deputy were unable to respond to the scene because they were on the other side of the tracks, said Columbus Fire Chief Rich Cowger. Also on the other side of the tracks was Arkell.

That left Cowger to assume what is called “incident command” of the situation until MRL arrived on scene. Once it was determined that no injuries, health or environmental issues had been caused by the derailment, attention quickly turned to the fact that the southern part of the county was now inaccessible to the majority of law enforcement, fire and ambulance services.

“The issue is there,” said Cowger Wednesday morning.

At one time, there had been a crossing near the Sibanye-Stillwater smelter facility for emergency crews to use in the event of the other two crossings being shut down. However, at some point, that crossing was “pulled out” by MRL, without notification to emergency services, said Cowger and Arkell.

The next nearest crossing is a 20-mile round trip involving a gravel road, said Cowger.