Montana Rail Link

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Montana Rail Link
Montana Rail Link - Logo.svg
Montana April 2005 077x4x (32815330442).jpg
A Montana Rail Link train in April 2005
HeadquartersMissoula, Montana
Reporting markMRL
LocaleIdaho, Montana, Washington
Dates of operationOctober 31, 1987–Present
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length937 miles
MRL #390, an EMD F45, leads a freight train

Montana Rail Link (reporting mark MRL) is a privately held Class II railroad in the United States. It operates on trackage originally built by the Northern Pacific Railway and leased from its successor BNSF. MRL is a unit of The Washington Companies and is headquartered in Missoula, Montana.

The railroad runs between Huntley, Montana and Spokane, Washington, largely within Montana, and the main line passes through the towns of Missoula, Livingston, Bozeman, Billings, and Helena. Montana Rail Link connects with the BNSF on both ends and also in Garrison, Montana. The railroad has over 900 miles (1,400 km) of track, serves 100 stations, and employs approximately 1,000 personnel. The main classification yard is in Laurel, Montana, with engine roundhouse and repair and mechanical facilities in Livingston, Montana, and with smaller yards located in Missoula, Billings, Bozeman and Helena.[1]

In January 2022, MRL and BNSF agreed on an early lease termination to return control of the line to BNSF. This now awaits approval by the Surface Transportation Board.


Montana Rail Link's present status and main line date back to October 31, 1987, when MRL under Missoula businessman Dennis Washington commenced a 60-year lease of Burlington Northern's southern Montana main line between Sandpoint, Idaho and Huntley, Montana, near Billings.[2][3] This spin-off was controversial as it happened during contract negotiations between Burlington Northern and the United Transportation Union. MRL workers are represented by various unions. Montana Rail Link trains operate between Billings and Spokane using trackage rights over BN successor BNSF's tracks connecting those points.

Montana Rail Link boxcar on the Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway at Cedar Rapids

Montana Rail Link still uses cabooses, which are used to carry remote control switching equipment on Laurel switch engines. A significant number of MRL movements are actually BNSF trains, complete with locomotives, that MRL receives at one end of its track and forwards back to BNSF at the other end. MRL also operates trains of its own to gather and distribute local freight along its lines. Forest products and grain are primary commodities, and MRL also operates a special train, called the Gas Local, between Missoula and Thompson Falls, Montana, to bridge a gap in a long-distance gasoline pipeline.

On September 8, 2005, Montana Rail Link took delivery of locomotive number 4300, the first of 16 new EMD SD70ACe locomotives. This was the first locomotive that the railroad has ordered new from a manufacturer, and it and the rest of the class were intended to replace aging SD40 and SD45 locomotives on trains crossing the Rocky Mountains over the continental divide at Mullan Pass near Helena, Montana and Bozeman Pass near Bozeman, Montana.[4]

In January 2022, BNSF agreed to pay MRL $2 billion for an early lease termination.[3][5][6] The return to BNSF control will require the approval of the Surface Transportation Board before taking effect.[7][8]


One of the most severe accidents in MRL history was the Helena Train Wreck of February 2, 1989, when 48 decoupled rail cars rolled into Helena, hit a parked work train, caught fire and exploded. While property damage was extensive, there were no casualties.[9]


  1. ^ For a general guide to the railroad, see Del Grosso, "Montana Rail Link Trackside Guide and Locomotive Directory" (1992, Great Northern Pacific Publications).
  2. ^ Montana Rail Link marking 30th year Railway Age September 5, 2017
  3. ^ a b Montana Rail Link to bow out Trains April 2022 page 4
  4. ^ Danneman, Thomas (March 2006). "New Muscle for Montana". Trains Magazine. Vol. 66, no. 3. pp. 38–41.
  5. ^ "MRL employees advised rail sold to BNSF". NBC Montana. January 10, 2022. Retrieved 2022-01-11.
  6. ^ Stephens, Bill. "BNSF had to undo Montana Rail Link Lease." Trains, May 2022, p. 11.
  7. ^ Franz, Justin (2022-01-11). "Washington Companies to terminate Montana Rail Link lease". Montana Free Press. Retrieved 2022-01-12.
  8. ^ "BNSF to take over Montana Rail Link after leasing agreement terminated". Missoula Current. 2022-01-14. Retrieved 2022-01-17.
  9. ^ Brandt, Angela (February 1, 2009). "20 Years Ago Today, Helena Shook, Rattled and Froze". Independent Record. Retrieved January 22, 2012.

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