The out of stocks we are seeing are largely manufacturer issues- workforce shortages with facilities that can’t work at full capacity, delivery trucks to transport product.

MRL operates on BNSF Railway-owned track that was leased by Washington Companies. Now BNSF is taking it back

Montana Rail Link, the Missoula-based 
railroad company
owned by billionaire
industrialist Dennis Washington,
announced Monday that it will
terminate a long-term lease of its
tracks through southern Montana
and return them to owner BNSF

The deal means that BNSF,
already a dominating force on
Montana’s rail network, will
again control the vast majority
of active railroad track in the
state. According to the Montana
Department of Transportation,
Texas-based BNSF operates on
59% of the state’s rail system. By
taking back MRL, it will control
84% of that network

In a press release issued Monday
evening, BNSF and MRL officials

said that all current MRL em-
ployees, both union and non-
union, will be able to keep their

jobs “with similar pay, benefits,
seniority, and other terms of
employment.” What exactly that
looks like in practice for many
MRL employees will come down

to negotiations between the rail-
roads and their unions. The deal

between the two companies will
require approval the U.S. Surface
Transportation Board, the federal
regulator that oversees railroads,
a process that could stretch on for
MRL employs more than 1,200
people and oversees 937 miles of
track in Montana and Idaho. The
rail line MRL runs on was built
by the Northern Pacific Railway
in the 1880s.

In 1987, Dennis Washington
forged an unusual agreement

with BNSF predecessor Burling-
ton Northern: BN would lease to

Washington its then-lesser-used
route through southern Montana
between Huntley (near Billings)
and Sandpoint, Idaho, for 60
years, while BN focused on its

northern route across the Hi-
Line. Washington also purchased

outright some branch lines,
including routes that connected
towns like Polson and Darby
to the main line. BN (and later
BNSF) continued to route some
of its own freight traffic via the
southern part of the state even
after MRL took over the line.

In recent years, a larger per-
centage of the freight traffic that

traversed MRL — upwards of

90%, officials said —was moved

on behalf of BNSF. The MRL-
owned branch lines also began to

play a decreasing role in generat-
ing freight traffic (MRL stopped

running on the branch lines to
Polson and Darby in the early
By having BNSF take the line
back over, the two companies
say freight traffic will move more
efficiently through the state. Both
companies assured Montana
businesses that use the southern
rail line that their freight rates
will not change, noting that in
most instances BNSF already sets
those prices.
“There have been many changes
in the rail industry since this
long-term lease was signed, and

given the need to be competitive
in the current environment, we
believe that this was the right
time to revisit our longstanding
agreement with BNSF,” said
Derek Ollmann, president of
MRL. “This agreement protects
our workers, our customers, and
our long-term commitment to
safety, and it will ensure a more
seamless operation of rail services
in Montana.”
While many MRL employees
Montana Free Press spoke with

were surprised at the news, rail-
road officials insisted that those

workers would not be negatively

impacted by the deal. MRL exec-
utives were planning to meet with

employees across the rail system
in the coming days to answer
questions about the transition.

BNSF officials also tried to calm
fears about the change. The MRL
lines would become known as the

“MRL Subdivision” and be in-
corporated into BNSF’s Montana

Division (BNSF operates 32,500
miles of track in 28 states, and
splits that network into smaller
regional operating divisions).
“We welcome the MRL team
and customers back into the

BNSF family,” said BNSF Presi-
dent and CEO Katie Farmer.

“We will continue to invest in this
business, provide great service
and maintain the highest level
of safety just as we have for over
a century in Montana.

This will best position employees, custom-
ers and the communities we serve for future success.”

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65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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