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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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.