By Justin Franz
Montana Rail Link — the friendly regional railroad that built a dedicated following of railroad enthusiasts during its 36-year run — became a fallen flag at midnight on January 1, 2024. At that moment, BNSF Railway resumed control of more than 900 miles of former Northern Pacific track between Huntley, Mont., and Sandpoint, Idaho.
Almost two years ago, BNSF and MRL’s owner, Washington Companies, announced that an agreement had been made to end MRL’s lease of the former NP main line 25 years earlier than expected. In 1987, BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern had made a deal to lease the NP main line to industrialist Dennis Washington for 60 years. In late 2022, MRL went to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to receive a waiver from the normal transaction review process. Because MRL operated on trackage that it leased from BNSF, the regional railroad argued that a detailed review of the transaction was unnecessary and that neither customers nor employees would be negatively impacted. As part of the deal, all MRL employees were offered jobs. On March 8, 2023, the STB gave its approval for the takeover. BNSF and MRL set a transition date of January 1, 2024.
While BNSF still owned the main line, the branch lines MRL operated on are still owned by Washington Corp. Branches that still see regular service, including those to Whitehall and Harrison, have been leased to BNSF.
In the months before the transition, BNSF locomotives became more common than they already were on MRL rails (most road trains are led by BNSF locomotives already), making appearances in helper service or even on MRL’s own road jobs, like the Missoula to Laurel wayfreight. No trespassing signs declaring it BNSF property also began to appear across the railroad.
Montana Rail Link operated the former Northern Pacific main line and a number of branches, including the line to Polson, as seen in this photo from the early 1990s. Photo by David A. Franz.
On Sunday, December 31, MRL began to wind down operations. Road trains were not called after 10 a.m. so that all trains would be stopped before midnight and crews would be marked off. The Day Gas Local between Missoula and Thompson Falls and the Missoula to Laurel freight would become some of the last trains to operate under the MRL flag. At midnight, MRL officially became the “MRL Subdivision” of BNSF’s Montana Division.
Just how long MRL’s blue locomotives will last in service is unclear. Because none of them have Positive Train Control installed, it is unlikely that they will be spread to other parts of the BNSF system, unless they are trailing. It also seems unlikely that some of MRL’s more unique locomotives — including a lone SD45, SDP40 and a handful of GP9s — will last long on BNSF. Even before BNSF took over, MRL was scrapping some older SD45s and GP9s that had not been in service for a number of years.
A Montana Rail Link engineer is seen on a helper set climbing Mullan Pass in July 2022. Photo by Justin Franz.
BNSF officials said they were optimistic about the future for the former NP across southern Montana. In many ways, the reacquisition of MRL had corrected a mistake made years earlier by BN; as traffic boomed in the 1990s, some say BN officials regretted the decision to lease the route to Washington. For Washington, a self-made billionaire on the Forbes 500 list, the lease was a great deal because BN and BNSF always provided MRL with traffic.
“We’re excited about the years ahead working together as one team,” said Luke Johnson, general manager of BNSF’s Montana Division. “Our combined forces will have a unique opportunity to build upon the best-in-class service our customers throughout the Montana region have come to expect.”
For railfans, however, the loss of MRL was something to lament rather than celebrate. MRL’s unique image, interesting motive power and classic infrastructure (including semaphore signals into the 2000s) were all great reasons to venture to Montana, especially in an era of growing conformity within railroading. Friendly employees were another longtime trademark of MRL. While the stunning scenery of Montana will still inspire enthusiasts to venture to Big Sky Country, it won’t be the same without Montana Rail Link.