Illegal tampering with rail signals is an ongoing safety and security concern, especially at rail crossings. One diligent Montana Rail Link employee’s reporting of a security incident likely saved lives and averted the possibility of “catastrophic damage,” affirming the importance of sustained vigilance and timely reporting of observed or detected concerns day to day.
On July 19, 2021, news reporting cited the arrest of a 58 year old male in Missoula, Montana, for allegedly tampering with rail signals control boxes. An employee of Montana Rail Link (MRL) reported seeing the trespasser walking along the rail tracks, tampering with the lock on the control box, and opening the covering door to “start messing with the internal equipment.”
A Missoula Police Officer responded to the scene, confirming that the trespasser had “gotten into the control signal box and was able to disable the train signals.” MRL employees assessing the effects of the incident determined that the trespasser had “turned off all the power switches to the crossing warning devices … As each box was examined, an MRL employee took photographs to document the condition they were in, then repaired … the interior equipment or mechanisms to return them to the operating condition they had been [in] before being tampered with.”
The responding Missoula Police Officer emphasized, “This is an extreme public safety hazard because the signaling of a train coming would not have worked if MRL employees had not been able to see that the box had been damaged … Pedestrians and drivers in the area would not have been made aware that a train was coming through the crossing. Thankfully, there was no incident.”
An MRL employee clarified the Taylor Street crossing “exists mainly to let tanker trucks full of petroleum fuels know when it is safe to cross over the tracks … these trucks are often pulling double trailers full of fuel from the north side of the tracks to the south … Immediately to the south of this crossing is a busy gas station and the Eastgate Shopping center … if a train collided with a fuel truck, the damage would have been catastrophic.”
The male trespasser is being charged with felony criminal endangerment , felony criminal trespass , and criminal trespass to property , a misdemeanor.
During the past two and a half months, railroads have reported eight incidents of some form of tampering with rail signaling equipment At least two of these incidents impacted rail crossings. Although there is no indication of either coordinated illicit activity or use of tactics similar to those employed in the Missoula incident, the range in the means of tampering is notable. The tactics
encompass track shunting, ripping out or cutting of wiring, physical tampering with signals control devices or components, and arson or other damaging acts against signals shacks or bungalows.
Each of these illegal acts does produce varying levels of safety risk. In most cases, as with the Montana Rail Link incident on July 19, they are promptly detected and resolved due to employees’ vigilance and reporting or monitoring of equipment functioning for anomalies. Vigilance, Observation, and Reporting Can Make and Often Have Made the Essential Difference!