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The Battle for Mullan Pass

On a warm July 2022 evening, four Montana Rail Link SD70ACe locomotives shove a westbound manifest around the horseshoe curve at Austin, Mont., on the east slope of Mullan Pass. This 2.2 percent grade over the Continental Divide has challenged Northern Pacific, Burlington Northern, and now, Montana Rail Link ever since it was first constructed in the 1880s.

The Battle for Mullan Pass

November 2022By Justin Franz/photos by the author

Physics will tell you that you never want to stop a train on the side of a mountain — but sometimes you don’t have much choice.

While I contemplate that theory, a few feet away engineer Ben Sullivan watches as the electronic speedometer in front of him ticks up from 0.1 mph to 0.2. He leans out of the cab and looks down at the ballast to see if his helper set of four Montana Rail Link SD70ACe locomotives has moved an inch. Slowly but surely, the EMDs get the heavy coal train rolling out of the siding at Austin, about halfway up the 2.2 percent grade of Mullan Pass in Montana.

“This is where the show begins,” Sullivan says, as he pulls the throttle back another notch.

Up until now, it has been an uneventful trip for Train C-SXMRBG2-61, a 126-car coal train bound for Roberts Bank on the coast of British Columbia. But a work window up ahead went long and instead of having a straight shot over the Continental Divide, MRL’s 3rd Subdivision dispatcher in Missoula stopped the westbound load at Austin for two hours. Now it’s up to Sullivan and the crew up on the head end, about 90 cars away, to get this train moving on wet rail after an afternoon thunderstorm had rolled through.

Mullan Pass

Engineer Ben Sullivan looks ahead as he guides his helper locomotives up the west slope of Mullan Pass on July 13, 2022. At Elliston, Mont., the four SD70ACe locomotives will be cut out and then head back downgrade to Helena, Mont., to help the next freight train up and over the mountain grade.

For nearly 140 years, this stretch of railroad through the Rocky Mountains has challenged Northern Pacific, Burlington Northern, and now, Montana Rail Link. And in an era where distributed power has helped eliminate some helper districts across the continent, there’s still no easier way to get freight over Mullan Pass than adding four locomotives to the middle of a heavy train for the 20-mile battle up the east slope.

In some ways, MRL owes its very existence to this mountain. When BN was created in 1970, it had two routes across Montana, the former Great Northern in the north and the Northern Pacific in the south. The GN route was built about a decade after the NP and had a relatively easy run across the state, tackling the Continental Divide once on the southern edge of Glacier National Park at Marias Pass. But the older NP main line climbed the Rocky Mountains not once but twice near Bozeman and Helena, both requiring helpers.

In the 1980s, BN was looking for ways to rid itself of the former NP. In 1987, it found its answer in the form of Montana Rail Link, a regional railroad founded by businessman Dennis Washington who agreed to lease the line for 60 years. Now Mullan Pass was his problem.

Mullan Pass

ABOVE: Skyline Trestle is one of the most iconic locations on MRL. From this spot alongside Mullan Pass Road, railfans can watch trains twist and turn through the lush mountain pass. 

Down in Helena
A few hours before “the show” began up on Mullan Pass, C-SXMRBG2-61 was sitting in Helena, the state capital and the home base for MRL’s helper operations. Work windows east and west of town meant the normally busy yard was quiet, save for a clerk checking the 840 local that would head east later in the afternoon.

Even before BNSF Railway announced it was taking back the former NP across southern Montana, Helena had been a popular destination for railfans seeking blue motive power. While the vast majority of trains across MRL are run-throughs (“overheads” as MRL railroaders call them) led by BNSF locomotives, Mullan Pass has always been one of the best places to see MRL locomotives thanks to the two or three sets of helpers usually based there. About 20 years ago, MRL’s fleet of SD45s and SD45-2s held down those assignments, but in 2005 the railroad purchased 16 EMD SD70ACes, the first new locomotives ever purchased by the road. Over the next decade, MRL would acquire another dozen and today the SD70ACes hold most of the road assignments, including helper services out of Helena and Livingston…

November 2022Read the rest of this story in the November 2022 issue of Railfan & Railroad. Subscribe Today!

This article was posted on: October 15, 2022