By Justin Franz
Nearly a week after a bridge collapsed over the Yellowstone River at Reed Point, Mont., sending rail cars into the water below, the cleanup is well underway. But it’s still unclear just how long Montana Rail Link’s main line across the southern part of the state will be closed. That closure has resulted in rare and unique detours throughout the region.
On June 24, ten cars on a westbound MRL train ended up in the Yellowstone River. Why exactly that happened is still under investigation and it’s unclear if the bridge failed first or if a derailment caused the collapse. On Thursday, five of the 10 cars that had ended up in the water, had been removed. The clean-up is being spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
While through traffic across MRL has slowed to a trickle (most trains on MRL come from BNSF Railway), other lines around the state are busier than ever. Perhaps the busiest is BNSF’s Hi-Line Subdivision across the northwest part of the state. Presently, BNSF is detouring trains on its Laurel to Shelby line (via Great Falls) and its Huntley to Snowden line (via Glendive). While the Hi-Line Sub west of Shelby might normally see 20 or 30 trains per day, it’s now seeing significantly more than that. BNSF has also detoured a few trains bound for the Pacific Northwest south onto Union Pacific.
Two manifest freights, both with Montana Rail Link motive power trailing, are seen at the east end of Whitefish yard on Wednesday night. Photo by Justin Franz.
One of the biggest changes in traffic patterns has been for coal trains. While the vast majority of coal traffic in the region goes via MRL, it is now running over the former Great Northern.
BNSF has moved some crews from its crew base in Whitefish toward Great Falls and Laurel to handle the traffic over the normally quiet secondary route. There have also been discussions about using MRL crews over that line, but that would need to be agreed to by the union. Railroad officials said earlier in the week that those talks were ongoing.
In order to help move traffic, MRL sent eight of its Helena-based SD70ACe helper locomotives west to BNSF. Those units were quickly put in service and were spotted on trains across the Hi-Line on Wednesday and Thursday.
Back on MRL, most locals were running as normal, including the Missoula to Thompson Falls Gas Local. The railroad has also been running some Missoula to Spokane trains to move local traffic.
Since the collapse of the bridge at Reed Point, the question being asked among railroaders and railfans alike has been how long will it take to reopen the main line. Guesses of anywhere from 30 days to four months have been shared, but so far, railroad officials have not given a timeline for when they think they’ll be able to rebuild the bridge.