Montana Rail Link to meld into BNSF come 2024

Last year, more than 95% of the traffic Montana Rail Link handled along the line it leases from BNSF was moved on behalf of the Class I. Montana Rail Link

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor 

The date is fast approaching that will mark the end of Montana Rail Link’s (MRL) 36-year run. By Jan. 1, 2024, the regional will be absorbed by BNSF Railway Co. and become one of the Class I’s subdivisions. 

In March, the Surface Transportation Board approved MRL’s petition to conclude its long-term lease with BNSF, and for the past five months, efforts have continued in earnest to prepare for the change in operations.  

Since 1987, MRL has leased and operated BNSF’s line between Huntley, Montana, and Sandpoint, Idaho. But under an agreement reached with the regional in early 2022, BNSF will resume operations of its mainline through southern Montana. 

“At this time, both organizations are working together to integrate departmental functions and processes to ensure a smooth transition. The transition process remains on schedule and we look forward to joining the BNSF network at the start of the new year,” said MRL spokesman Andy Garland in an email. 

Integration efforts are focused on human resources, operations, technologies, finances, assets and other aspects of MRL. All the regional’s 1,200 unionized and non-unionized employees have been offered employment with BNSF in their current work location, said Garland. 

Montana Rail Link The more than 900-mile regional will become an MRL Subdivision in BNSF’s Montana Division by early 2024. Montana Rail Link

Based in Missoula, Montana, MRL was founded in 1987 by entrepreneur Dennis Washington and is a part of The Washington Cos. The regional operates more than 900 miles of track in Montana and Idaho, and serves more than 150 customers in Montana.  

Last year, more than 95% of the traffic on MRL’s leased line was moved on behalf of BNSF. The line has become a critical link in BNSF’s northern transcontinental network for movements of grain, consumer products and industrial products to the West Coast, according to the Class I. 

Come 2024, the line will become an MRL Subdivision in BNSF’s Montana Division to recognize the shared heritage between the Class I and regional. The full integration will eliminate the need for the two railroads to interchange freight, strengthening supply-chain resiliency and enhancing rail capacity in the Pacific Northwest, BNSF officials say.

MRL customers will retain their service arrangements and rates since the vast majority of traffic moving on the line already is subject to rates established by BNSF. 

The MRL team is eager and ready for the next chapter in the regional’s history, said Joe Racicot — who became MRL’s president in late 2022 — in a press release issued earlier this year.  

“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,” he said. 

The MRL team knows how to operate the line better than anyone and will be a welcome addition to the Class I, said BNSF President and CEO Katie Farmer. 

“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,” she said.