UPDATED: Monday, January 10, 5:30 p.m. MST
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.
MRL officials confirmed the news to Railfan & Railroad on Monday evening.
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. By MRL ending its lease and BNSF resuming operation of its line, BNSF will eliminate the need to interchange freight between the two railroads, strengthening the resiliency of the supply chain and enhancing rail capacity in the Pacific Northwest. BNSF’s continued operation of its line will ensure that Montanans continue to have access to consistent, reliable, nationwide rail service to effectively compete in global markets.”
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.
“There have been many changes in the rail industry since this long-term lease was signed, and given the need to be competitive in the current environment, we believe that this was the right time to revisit our longstanding agreement with BNSF,” said Derek Ollmann, president of MRL. “This agreement protects our workers, our customers, and our long-term commitment to safety, and it will ensure a more seamless operation of rail services in Montana.”
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.”
“We are excited to bring an important part of our railroad’s history back into our operations at BNSF,” said Katie Farmer, president and CEO at BNSF. “We welcome the MRL team and customers back into the BNSF family. We will continue to invest in the business, provide great service and maintain the highest level of safety just as we have for over a century in Montana. This will best position employees, customers and the communities we serve for future success.”
MRL gained a major following among railroad enthusiasts thanks to its older motive power, friendly crews and the stunning scenery it operated through.