MRL Rails Returning to BNSF (Updated)

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
MRL helper locomotives assist at the rear end of a BNSF grain train climbing Bozeman Pass, west of Livingston, Mont. (Photo and caption by Bruce Kelly)

MRL helper locomotives assist at the rear end of a BNSF grain train climbing Bozeman Pass, west of Livingston, Mont. (Photo and caption by Bruce Kelly)

After more than 30 years of operating BNSF-owned main line between Huntley, Mont., and Sandpoint, Idaho, Montana Rail Link (MRL) reported on Jan. 10 that it is ceasing its long-term lease with the Class I.

As the freight market has evolved, more than 90% of freight volume moving on MRL is on BNSF trains, the Class II—Railway Age’s 2013 Regional Railroad of the Year—explained in a Jan. 10 letter to employees; it issued a media notice later the same day.

“When MRL was created in 1987, our vision was to become a safe, reliable regional railroad in partnership with BNSF, then Burlington Northern, to provide customers with competitive, consistent service, and employees with good, stable jobs,” President Derek Ollmann wrote to employees of MRL, which was founded by entrepreneur Dennis Washington and is a part of The Washington Companies. “Thanks to you, we have achieved that vision together and answered the call since the day we began operating trains.”

MRL, “The Main Street of Montana,” has operated more than 900 miles of main line and branch trackage from Jones Junction (Huntley), Mont., west to Sandpoint, Idaho, with trackage rights beyond Sandpoint to Spokane, Wash., over BNSF.

Marking MRL’s 30th anniversary on Oct. 31, 2017, Railway Age Contributing Editor Bruce Kelly called MRL a “true success story emerging from Burlington Northern’s disposal of routes that were considered redundant or unprofitable in the 1980s.” He noted that the regional had “flourished not only through its service to more than 100 Montana-based customers, but also by providing an important bridge route for roughly one-third of BNSF’s traffic moving to and from the Pacific Northwest. Much of that PNW traffic involves grain, coal and other commodities being exported overseas, making MRL a key player in international trade.”

MRL, on Jan. 10, reported that 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 has committed to retaining the 1,200-plus union and non-union employees of MRL in their current jobs with similar pay, benefits, seniority and other employment terms, according to MRL.

While MRL and BNSF have reached an agreement to terminate the lease before it concludes, the move will require the negotiation of collective bargaining agreements with the affected unions, and it must be approved by the Surface Transportation Board, MRL said.

MRL President Derek Ollmann

The regional noted, too, that network customers, including more than 150 local businesses, will maintain their service arrangements and rates; the vast majority of traffic moving on MRL today is subject to rates already established by BNSF.

“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,” Ollmann said. “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 President and CEO Katie Farmer

“We are excited to bring an important part of our railroad’s history back into our operations at BNSF,” BNSF President and CEO Katie Farmer said. “The line will become the MRL Subdivision of our Montana Division in recognition of the shared heritage of BNSF and MRL.

“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.”

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