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Train enthusiasts look back on Montana Rail Link legacy with love

MRL BNSF Locomotives
Posted at 5:22 PM, Jan 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-09 19:22:44-05

MISSOULA — A blue locomotive on a mountainous background has been the image for the Montana Rail Link for almost 30 years but as of 2024, the railroad company has undergone a big change.

MRL’s lease with BNSF Railway was officially terminated on January 1, 2024, meaning BNSF will retake control of a major portion of Montana’s railways.

MRL originally bought over 900 miles of the Northern Pacific route through Montana, between Huntley and Sandpoint, Idaho in 1987.

The deal heavily favored Washington Companies, the owner of MRL, according to Mike Meyers, a former BNSF employee.

The deal guaranteed MRL traffic through their route, meaning it essentially could not fail.

The deal also marked a period where hundreds of BNSF – Burlington Northern at the time – employees lost their jobs in the merger.

“It was a dark day in Montana railroad,” Meyer says.

MRL Locomotive
Montana Rail Link began operations in 1987 under a 60-year lease from BNSF. The company was founded by Missoula entrepreneur Dennis Washington and was part of The Washington Companies.

Meyer worked with BNSF for 40 years before retiring. While he was able to retain his job, he watched many of his colleagues fall out of work.

The original lease between MRL and Burlington Northern was for 60 years, but two years ago, BNSF decided to buy out MRL’s contract.

“Operating as one will bring benefits to our customers. We look forward to the great potential for freight growth in the region, thanks to enhanced capacity and stronger service to meet evolving logistics expectations. In some respects, it resembles a reunion,” BNSF said in a statement online.

BNSF guaranteed all MRL employees jobs under the new merger and told MTN News in an email that employees would not be asked to relocate.

In Meyer’s eyes, the new deal is nothing compared to 26 years ago.

“I’ll just say that compared to Nov. 1, 1987, it’s completely inconsequential,” he says. “I’ll never forget the 100s of Montanans that lost their job in 1987. It’s a necessary railroad, BN should have kept it, and I just hope everybody gets closure. We just move on, it’s a different railroading atmosphere. So I’m actually thinking this is to be positive.”

For train enthusiasts around the country, the MRL locomotive had an iconic look– dark blue paint against a mountainous background.

MRL model train
For train enthusiasts around the country, the Montana Rail Link locomotive had an iconic look– dark blue paint against a mountainous background.

Members of the Missoula Model Train Club look back on the years with the blue locomotive with love.

“I’ve traveled all over the country for work, and I see trains everywhere. But you see MRL boxcars, you see MRL engines, and that’s home,” says Tom McCartney who is a member of the club.

And they mourn the symbol MRL stood for in Montana.

“It’s definitely a little sad to see it go, it’s one of the few railroads that is named after a state,” says Paul Hammond, who has been a model train enthusiast since he was ten years old.

BNSF did tell MTN News in an email that they have no plans to paint over the MRL logos.

The merger is part of a larger national trend of larger railroad companies taking back control of smaller routes, according to Meyer.

But overall, the average Montanan shouldn’t notice a difference.

“I think in a couple months, it’s just going to be a non-issue,” Meyer says.