Montana Rail Link

Montana Rail Link (reporting marks MRL) 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.

Montana Rail Link SD40XR #265 leads the "Gas Local" along the Clark Fork River near Thompson Falls, Montana on June 10, 2013. Drew Jacksich photo.

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.

For train enthusiasts with an especial interest in rail history, and the Milwaukee Road in particular, keep a sharp eye on the company's old roadbed along the central portions of Montana Rail Link's system. 

In places like St. Regis, Garrison, Drummond, and elsewhere the old Northern Pacific and Milwaukee main lines were never far apart; in some cases the two right-of-ways even paralleled each other.

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.

More Reading...

The Northern Pacific, "Main Street Of The North West" 

Burlington Northern, The West's First Mega-Railroad 

A History Of Montana's Railroads

Idaho's History With Trains

A quartet of Montana Rail Link SD70ACe's, purchased new by the railroad, work in helper service over Mullan Pass, Montana as they cross Slyline Trestle on June 9, 2013. Drew Jacksich photo.

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 30+ years in terms of size, with important yards located at Missoula and Billings. 

Had MRL been launched a decade earlier it likely also would now operate components of the old Milwaukee Road in this region, which provided the only other through rail service in central and southern Montana.   

Alas, as many railfans are well aware, the company pulled out of the west in 1980, predominantly a result of poor leadership and mismanagement.

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.

Montana Rail Link SD45 #382 leads a work train of old ties along Bozeman Pass on August 24, 2007. Note the caboose tagging along! Drew Jacksich photo.

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.

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.

Montana Rail Link F45XR #392 (since retired) leads its freight east as the train climbs out of Elliston, Montana toward Mullan Pass on August 24, 2005. Drew Jacksich photo.

Additionally, it now has trackage rights stretching to Spokane, Washington via BNSF. Overall, MRL now operates a system of some 955 miles.

Montana Rail Link Locomotive Roster

Builder Model Type Road Number Notes/Disposition Quantity
EMDSW120012-15, 17-18Ex-NP6
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
EMDSD40XR251-265Ex-UP, Ex-C&NW, Ex-BN, Ex-C&S15
EMDSD45-2301-305, 308-311, 313Ex-Clinchfield10
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
EMDGP35401-406Ex-DT&I, Ex-SP6
EMDSD9608, 610Ex-EJ&E2
EMDSD19-1651-652Ex-SP, Ex-EJ&E2
EMDSD35701-703, 705Ex-N&W, Ex-ACL4
EMDSD70ACe4300-4315, 4400-4408Purchased New, 2005-201425

Along the beautiful Missouri River near Lombard two Geeps have a Montana Rail Link local freight on September 6, 1997. Directly across the river and just out of view was rival Milwaukee Road's fabled Pacific Extension. Doug Kroll photo.

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.

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Wes Barris's is simply the best web resource in the study of steam locomotives. 

The amount of information found there is quite staggering; historical backgrounds of wheel arrangements, types used by virtually every railroad, preserved and operational examples, and even those used in other countries (North America and beyond). 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website.  It is a must visit!

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way. 

Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that. 

If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer

It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!