Montana Rail Link seeks green light from STB to terminate lease

By Justin Franz

MISSOULA, Mont. — Montana Rail Link has filed a petition with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board asking the federal regulator to give the green light to a plan to terminate the lease with the BNSF Railway to allow the Class I to resume regular service through Montana can resume.

earlier this year, MRL announced that it would be terminating the long-term lease on its main line over Montana and Idaho and that BNSF would soon resume operations. MRL’s parent company, Washington Corp., leased the former Northern Pacific of Huntley, Mont. to Sandpoint, Idaho in 1987 for 60 years. But earlier this year, MRL and BNSF jointly decided to end that arrangement after just 35 years. Since the announcement in January, MRL and BNSF have been working with union leaders to forge implementation agreements with regional road union workers. BNSF is committed to hiring all MRL employees.

On Nov. 18, MRL filed an exemption request with the STB, which was posted online Monday morning. In the petition, MRL has asked for an exception to the regular STB review process for the cessation of the shared carriage service. Regionalbahn’s lawyers argue that no employees or customers will be adversely affected by MRL’s suspension of service as BNSF maintains the service. Lawyers also point out that “95%” of freight traffic on MRL comes from BNSF, which sets most of the fares for customers.

“BNSF’s resumption of operations and maintenance along this corridor will have minimal impact on MRL’s rail-served customers,” the attorneys write.

MRL is specifically seeking to terminate its lease on 656.47 miles of “non-contiguous mainline” in Montana and Idaho and 96.04 miles of track rights on BNSF in Montana, Idaho and Washington (principally “The Funnel” between Sandpoint, Idaho) and Spokane, Washington).

MRL will retain ownership of a number of Montana branch lines that were purchased outright in 1987. These include branches to Polson, Darby, Phillipsburg, Harrison and Whitehall, some of which have not had train service for years. According to the petition, MRL will lease these lines to BNSF.

Railway officials have said they expect BNSF to resume operations sometime in 2023. The petition filed with the STB did not include a specific date, merely stating: “MRL proposes to effect the hiring on or after the effective date of a Board decision granting this petition, subject to coordination with BNSF to ensure a smooth transition of the service.” This means that the last day of operation of MRL is partly determined by the STB. If federal regulators give the green light to the exemption request, the MRL era could quickly come to an end in the coming months.