Montana Rail Link

Montana Rail Link is a regional operation based in Missoula, Montana. Currently the railroad operates nearly 1,000 miles of track (also at nearly 1,000 employees MRL is one of the larger Class IIs in the country), which runs between central Montana near Billings to eastern Washington at Spokane. MRL got its start in 1987 when it took over ex-Burlington Northern trackage through Montana and today is one of two railroads operated by The Washington Companies. The railroad is a top-notch, efficiently run operation that has several connections with Class I carriers BNSF Railway and Union Pacific. Not only does the railroad’s property compete with many Class I railroads in terms of speed but it is also one of the few smaller lines to purchase brand new locomotives, in this case EMD’s new SD70ACe.

MRL SD40-2 #204 leads F45XR #390 and what appears to be an SD40 as all three units power an eastbound manifest freight near Drummond, Montana during the spring of 2004.

The history of Montana Rail Link begins in the late 1980s, and amid confusion, when then Burlington Northern agreed to lease (in 1987) its former Northern Pacific main line between Billings, Montana and Sandpoint, Idaho. The new line was to be operated by local Montana businessman Dennis Washington, which named it Montana Rail Link and the new railroad instantly became a 900+ mile regional system. Since its upstart, MRL has actually changed very little over the past 20+ years in terms of size with important yards located at Missoula and Billings.

Interestingly, today's BNSF Railway still owns much of the original NP main line between Minnesota and Seattle, and probably wishes it had not sold the section now operated by MRL. This is because the Class I regularly still uses the line via trackage rights were trains run-through from an eastern connection at Jones Junction and western connection at Sandpoint. From there BNSF trains are managed by Montana Rail Link dispatches located in Missoula. The town has always been important to MRL, not only as its headquarters but with fully a equipped centralized-traffic-control (CTC) main line, trains are also dispatched from there.

Along the beautiful Missouri River near Lombard two Geeps have a Montana Rail Link local freight on September 6, 1997. Directly across the river from the former Northern Pacific line was rival Milwaukee Road's fabled Pacific Extension.

Because of the railroad's location, Montana Rail Link does move a significant amount of agriculture products, namely grain and corn. However, the company also moves other types of freight as well such as various timber products, aggregates, coal, some intermodal, natural gas, and general merchandise. Additionally, the MRL's traffic base is greatly boosted by the fact that it has so many outside connections, namely to BNSF and Union Pacific. Without such connections the railroad certainly would not have such a diverse amount of freight moving over its rails. In more recent times the railroad has gained additional lines, mostly branches serving Montana towns such as Spire Rock, Twin Bridges, Darby, and Polson.

MRL GP9u #151 and GP9 #115 head eastbound with a short local through the open prairies of Townsend, Montana on September 6, 1997. The regional currently uses only EMD products.

Additionally, it now has trackage rights stretching to Spokane, Washington via BNSF. Overall, MRL now operates a system of some 955 miles. The railroad has actually become so profitable that it has purchased new locomotives. Currently Montana Rail Link has an exceptionally large roster although all of its locomotives are strictly of EMD heritage. To learn more about Montana Rail Link please click here to visit their official website. Also, if you may be interested in learn more about the history of the Northern Pacific please click here.

Montana Rail Link Roster

Builder Model Type Road Number Notes/Disposition Quantity
EMDSW120012-15, 17-18Ex-NP6
EMDSW916Ex-Frisco1
EMDSW150051-52Ex-Island Steel2
EMDGP9106-110, 112-113, 116-117, 119-121, 123, 127-128, 130-133Ex-NP, Ex-GN, Ex-CGW, Ex-CRI&P, Ex-MSTL, Ex-QNSL19
EMDGP19-1151Ex-NP GP91
EMDSD40208-209, 213, 216, 220-224Ex-BN, Ex-C&S, Ex-CGW9
EMDSD40-2250Ex-BN1
EMDSD40XR251-265Ex-UP, Ex-C&NW, Ex-BN, Ex-C&S15
EMDSDP40R290Ex-GN1
EMDSD45-2301-305, 308-311, 313Ex-Clinchfield10
EMDSD45R314-331Ex-SP18
EMDSDP45R332Ex-Conrail1
EMDSD45342-344, 501-505, 7544-7555, 8941Ex-N&W, Ex-AT&SF, Ex-D&RGW, Ex-SP11
EMDSD45XR351-358Ex-GN, Ex-Frisco8
EMDF45XR390, 392Ex-BN2
EMDSDP40R290Ex-GN1
EMDGP35401-406Ex-DT&I, Ex-SP6
EMDSD7605-607Ex-SP3
EMDSD9608, 610Ex-EJ&E2
EMDSD19-1651-652Ex-SP, Ex-EJ&E2
EMDSD35701-703, 705Ex-N&W, Ex-ACL4
EMDSD70ACe4300-4315, 4400-4403Purchased New, 2005-201320


MRL GP35 #402 and mate #401 performing switching work with the Polson local at rural Pablo, Montana during the spring of 2004.

A good read on the history of railroading in the Pacific is Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest by author Carlos Schwantes.  The book is an older title, released back in the mid-1990s but has received very good reviews for its in-depth look at the development of railroads in that region and how they played an important role in opening the northern states (Washington, Idaho, and Montana) for economic development.  Copies can sometimes be difficult to find but I believe it is still in print.  If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

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