Montana Viewpoint

April 12, 2001

The state will be a little quieter soon, at least if you live near a railroad. A bill I sponsored at the request of some constituents to get trains to stop sounding their horns at every farm road crossing the tracks has made it through the Legislature, and is headed to the Governor for signing into law. It´s sure a long way from the most important piece of legislation passed this session, but it´s important to those who are personally affected. More importantly, it shows that in Montana, private citizens can gain ready access to their legislators, and even change the law. Try that in California!

A couple of years ago residents of Sanders County began noticing that the trains were making more noise than usual by sounding their familiar signal at every private crossing. One resident of Eddy was so baffled by the noise that he kept going out to check to see if his cows had gotten onto the tracks. Dr. Ray Nelson of Eddy became so annoyed that he spent the next several months trying to do something about it.

He found out that a combination of a recent court decision against a railroad and an archaic law in Montana had combined to create the problem. The railroad had been sued in a case involving a grade crossing accident. The jury found the railroad negligent because the engineer didn´t sound his horn at the private crossing where the accident occurred. Railroads just didn´t blow their horns at any crossing but a public road before the decision, but Montana´s law, written over 70 years ago, said trains must “cause their whistle to be blown” at railroad crossings. So, to be on the safe side, the railroads began to make noise at every cowpath that crossed the tracks.

The laws in other states specify that the crossing be public before trains are required to signal their approach. Seemed it would be a simple thing to change the law in Montana, thought Dr. Nelson, so he contacted me, and I had legislation prepared to do it. At the request of several cities and towns across the state, including Plains and Thompson Falls, the bill also carried a provision that would enable towns to have “quiet zones” where streets crossed the tracks if the towns could protect the crossings so that cars couldn´t sneak through the gates.

I contacted the railroads and the railroad unions to see if they could support the change in the law, they said yes, and it looked like full steam ahead for the bill. Wishful thinking! A famous lawyer from Great Falls came to oppose the bill because he felt that public safety would be affected. I couldn´t understand how the public safety would be any worse off than it was two years ago before the trains started blowing their horns at private crossings. Lawyers hadnÕt bothered to change things then, so what was so important about it now?

Well, at least the Senate Transportation Committee let me leave the room before they killed the bill, but not by much. The short and long of it is, we offered to amend the bill if the Committee would reconsider their vote. When it came out of committee, it was a lot thinner than when it went in. All that was left was the part that changed the law to require that trains sound their horns only at “public” crossings. It then zoomed through the Senate, stumbled around a little in The House Transportation Committee, and was carried on the House floor by Representative Paul Clark.

Where the lawyers got a hold of it again, and killed it. It was brought back to life, amended again, and, soon, it will become law, and the world will be a little quieter. Trains will no longer toot at private crossings unless the owners want them to, and make a written request to the railroad. Otherwise, things will return to the normal of two years ago.

It was a lot of work getting the bill passed, but it was fun and funny and had a good outcome. Seemed like it would be such a simple little bill to carry. You never know.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620