BILLINGS- Tuesday was business as usual at Montana’s busiest rail yard in Laurel after Montana Rail Link announced late Monday that it would conclude its lease with BNSF.
Now some are calling it the end of an era.
“All the railfans are going to miss those blue engines with the white stripes on the front,” said train enthusiast Dale Jones.
Jones adoringly referred to himself Tuesday as Mr. Railroads of Montana, keeping tabs on the comings and goings of all things railroads through the years and authoring a website dedicated to photography of trains in the Pacific Northwest.
“They’re very dear to the hearts of people who live in Montana,” he said.
But soon it will change, ending some 30 years of Montana Rail Link, which was started in 1987 by Missoula businessman Dennis Washington.
Jones tackled the possible reasons behind the move.
“It's beneficial,” he said. “For the BNSF to run over MRL, so I can see that. That's one of the reasons I would guess that the BNSF would like to have total control again, is that they're really using that a lot.”
Montana Rail Link officials said the freight environment has evolved, with 90 percent of volume moved by BNSF trains.
As of Tuesday, officials hadn’t set a timeline for how long it might take for Montana Rail Link to transfer its operations over to Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
The cancellation of its lease must first be approved by the federal government. The announcement came in the form of a letter from President Derek Ollmann telling employees that the decision was made with a great deal of thought.
Jones says surely there will be some uneasiness among MRL employees.
“I don't think it's a one-sided decision,” said Jones. “Of course, I think somehow it's worked out where both of them feel it's going to be beneficial to them.”
Montana Rail Link employs roughly 1,200 employees and among them some 300 work at the Laurel rail switcher.
MRL’s iconic locomotives stretched some 900 miles from Billings to Sandpoint, Idaho.
“And they have improved their infrastructure,” said Jones. “They've bought some well brand-new locomotives.”
MTN News highlighted those changes back in 2019 when we were allowed a behind-the-scenes look at the operations in Laurel. It was at that point MRL officials announced the largest investment in its history with $95 million in technology upgrades.
At the time, the company spokesperson Ross Lane spoke ambitiously about the company’s future, saying, “We are looking toward the future, and it's anything but that technology from the 1880s.”
The change-up comes as a shock for employees and enthusiasts in the rail industry such as Jones.
“It’s unique. MRL is unique in the United States as for an operating railroad,” said Jones.
The company has offered assurances that the agreement is based on BNSF's agreement to keep all union and non-union MRL workers in their current jobs with similar pay and benefits.
"It is our hope that union leadership will take full stock of the seniority and experience offered by our workforce and will come to terms allowing our employees to work their same jobs under the same or similar circumstances they enjoy today,” said Ollmann in a statement.
MTN News reached out to Montana Rail Link’s union representation Tuesday, but calls were not returned.