STB OKs MRL Rails’ Return to BNSF

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor
Pictured: MRL manifest approaching Bozeman, Mont. (Bruce Kelly Photograph)

Pictured: MRL manifest approaching Bozeman, Mont. (Bruce Kelly Photograph)

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) on March 8 approved Montana Rail Link’s (MRL) petition to cease operating over main line between Huntley, Mont., and Sandpoint, Idaho, under a long-term lease with BNSF.

MRL in January 2022 announced it would conclude its more than 30-year lease, and in November 2022 sought STB authorization.

As the freight market has evolved, more than 90% of freight volume moving on MRL—Railway Age’s 2013 Regional Railroad of the Year—is on BNSF trains, and the lines have become a “critical link in BNSF’s northern transcontinental network, delivering grain, consumer and industrial products to the West Coast,” the Class II explained in early 2022. By MRL ending its lease and BNSF resuming operation, the need to interchange freight between the two railroads would be eliminated.

The now-approved MRL to BNSF transition “ensures Montanans continue to have access to consistent, reliable, nationwide rail service to effectively compete in global markets,” BNSF reported on March 8. It is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Joe Racicot, President of MRL

BNSF said it has 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.” There are approximately 1,100 employees, of which 962 are unionized and represented by nine separate labor organizations. In October 2022, an “overwhelming majority” of participating BLET members ratified an implementing agreement and Oregon Short Line Protective Agreement with BNSF regarding its resumption of service on MRL.

BNSF also reported that customers across MRL’s network will be able to maintain their service arrangements and rates. It noted that the “vast majority of rail traffic moving on MRL today is subject to rates already established by BNSF.” (According to MRL, there are approximately 125 active customers.)

“Our team is eager and ready for the next chapter in MRL’s history,” said Joe Racicot, President of MRL, which was established in 1987 and is part of The Washington Companies. “We have created a strong culture at MRL and BNSF shares our values. Our shared commitment to safety and customer service are bedrock values within both companies that will never change.”

Katie Farmer, BNSF President and CEO

In a letter to MRL employees, Racicot noted that “both MRL and BNSF are aligned on a transition plan, and we’re committed to keeping everyone informed throughout the process. An important part of that plan is ensuring everyone at MRL has the opportunity to continue serving the customers and communities who count on us every day. I believe our future is bright, and I can’t think of a better partner or a stronger company to be a part of than BNSF Railway.”

“We are excited to welcome the MRL team,” said BNSF President and CEO Katie Farmer, Railway Age’s 2023 Railroader of the Year. “They know this railroad better than anyone and we’re proud to have them join BNSF. The line will become the MRL Subdivision of our Montana Division in recognition of the shared heritage of BNSF and MRL. Joining these two great railroads—both with strong ties and rich traditions—opens new opportunities and broader horizons for our collective teams, our families, and the customers and communities we’ve worked together to serve for many years.”

STB Decision

STB reported that its decision (download below) allows MRL to discontinue service over approximately 656.47 miles of non-contiguous rail line and to discontinue trackage rights service over approximately 66.47 miles of rail line in the Montana counties of Yellowstone, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Park, Gallatin, Broadwater, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Powell, Deer Lodge, Granite, Missoula, Lake, Mineral, and Sanders; the Idaho counties of Bonner and Kootenai; and the Washington county of Spokane. The approval is “subject to standard employee protective conditions.” The discontinuance of service exemption will be effective April 7, 2023. According to STB, petitions to reopen and petitions to stay the effectiveness of the exemption must be filed by March 28, 2023.

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