Following Bridge Collapse, MRL Main Line Could Be Severed For Weeks

On Saturday, Montana Rail Link’s bridge over the Yellowstone River collapsed as its LM road freight passed over it at Reed Point, Montana. Officials say the line could be out-of-service for weeks. Photo by Jeremy J Schrader.

Following Bridge Collapse, MRL Main Line Could Be Severed For Weeks

By Justin Franz

Montana Rail Link’s main line could be severed for weeks — or even longer — after a bridge over the Yellowstone River collapsed on Saturday morning near Reed Point, Montana. 

At 6:45 a.m. Saturday, MRL’s Laurel to Missoula road freight derailed crossing the Yellowstone River, sending about 10 cars into the water below and spilling molten sulfur and asphalt. Two cars carrying sodium hydrosulfide also derailed but did not go into the river. No one was injured in the wreck and the cause is under investigation. 

On Monday morning, two days after the wreck, the cleanup was only just beginning, but railroad officials are expecting a lengthy disruption to operations. On Sunday, during a press conference, officials did not offer a firm timeline for when the bridge would be rebuilt but suggested it could take weeks.

The last time MRL’s main line was cut for an extended period of time was back in 2009 when Mullan Tunnel caved in. When that happened, MRL and BNSF were forced to detour traffic via the Hi-Line across the northern part of the state. That detour route was once again coming into play in the hours after the wreck, with westbound trains being sent out of Billings via BNSF’s Laurel and Great Falls subdivisions to Shelby to meet up with the Hi-Line Subdivision. 

Some MRL trains, like the ML-LM road freights connecting Laurel and Missoula, and the Laurel to Bozeman local, would be impacted by the bridge collapse. Other locals, like those out of Helena, Missoula and Logan, would likely operate as normal. Most traffic originating from MRL is added to BNSF freights. But because those trains would not be running across MRL, it was likely that the MS-SM road freight, last regularly seen in the 1990s between Spokane, Wash., and Missoula, would have to be revived to move traffic west. 

On Sunday, it was reported that eight MRL SD70ACe locomotives, usually used in helper service over Mullan Pass, were being sent west to Hauser, Idaho, to be put into service helping move detours. While the locomotives were sure to add a dash of blue where MRL is rarely seen (MRL power doesn’t regularly go west of Thompson Falls, Montana), the SD70ACes would be unable to lead on BNSF due to the lack of Positive Train Control equipment. 

This article was posted on: June 26, 2023