MRL’s Gas Local is seen along the Clark Fork River in June 2018. (Justin Franz)
By Justin Franz
MISSOULA, Mont. — BNSF Railway plans to reacquire its former Northern Pacific main line across Montana that is currently operated by Montana Rail Link.
On Monday, MRL informed employees that it would be terminating the long-term lease of its 900-mile rail line across southern Montana and northern Idaho and that BNSF would soon resume operations on the line as its “MRL Subdivision.” The deal will need to be approved by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board. No date has been set for a takeover.
In 1987, Montana industrialist Dennis Washington, through his Washington Companies, leased Burlington Northern’s secondary main line across the state and purchased a number of former NP branches, creating MRL. That lease was expected to expire in 2047 but the company has decided to get out of it early. Railroad executives noted that its traffic base has changed significantly in the last 30 years and that the vast majority of freight on the line is bridge traffic from BNSF.
“Over the last several years, more than 90 percent of the traffic traversing MRL’s leased line were loads moved on behalf of BNSF,” the railroad said in a statement to Railfan & Railroad. “The line has become a critical link in BNSF’s northern transcontinental network, delivering grain, consumer and industrial products to the West Coast.
MRL was telling employees this week that BNSF had “committed to retaining all union and non-union employees of MRL in their current jobs with similar pay, benefits, seniority, and other terms of employment.” The lease termination will require the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements with affected unions.
BNSF officials said the former MRL lines would be designated the “MRL Subdivision” and become part of its Montana Division, “in recognition of the shared heritage of BNSF and MRL.”
MRL gained a major following among railroad enthusiasts thanks to its older motive power, friendly crews and the stunning scenery it operated through.