BNSF Inks Trackage Rights Deal for MRL Branches

Montana Rail Link’s 840 Local rolls down the 13th Subdivision between East Helena and Montana City, Mont., in July 2022. MRL recently granted BNSF Railway exclusive trackage rights on this and two other branches. Photo by Justin Franz. 

BNSF Inks Trackage Rights Deal for MRL Branches

By Justin Franz

Montana Rail Link is granting BNSF Railway exclusive trackage rights on three different branch lines that its parent company will continue to own once the Class I resumes operations over the regional railroad. 

According to a filing posted by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board on Monday, BNSF will have trackage rights on the 5th, 6th and 13th Subdivisions for 99 years, with the option to extend those rights for up to 990 years. The 5th Subdivision is the former NP main line toward Homestake Pass connecting Logan, Mont., to Spire Rock; the 6th Subdivision goes from Sappington to Harrison; and the 13th Subdivision is former Great Northern track from East Helena to Montana City. In total, the three lines make up about 65 miles of track. 

When MRL was created in 1987, it leased the former NP main line across Montana from BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern. While BN retained ownership of the main, it sold MRL the branch lines. Over the years, some of those lines have been taken out of service, including lines to Darby and Polson. MRL is expected to maintain ownership of those routes as well, but what exactly will happen with them is unclear. 

MRL and BNSF decided to terminate the lease early last year, and the STB recently approved the deal. BNSF will likely take over MRL at the end of this year. 

This article was posted on: April 20, 2023