MISSOULA — While Montana Rail Link will be getting out of the railroad business by shifting operations to Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the Missoula-based company will still control considerable real estate. That includes some important, but currently unused branch lines in Western Montana.
During the most recent meeting of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority (BSPRA), spokesman Jon Bennion explained MRL will be exiting the railroad business as it ends its lease on Montana's "Southern Route" and turns operations over to BNSF. The exception is a short line it will continue to operate in southern British Columbia.
"When this is all approved by the Surface Transportation Board, there's no planned rail activities that Montana Rail Link will have," Washington Companies Governmental Affairs Director Jon Bennion told the BSPRA members. "And so whether it's Montana Rail Link or the Washington Companies that has these we're not going to be operating rail on this line."
One question that's cropped up is what will happen to the branch lines and spurs that feed off the mainline.
"There are a few tiny spurs that go to serve particular customers that I believe will go to BNSF," Bennion explained. "But some of the ones of interest that I've heard the most about are the line from like Dixon to Polson, the Bitterroot Line, some of those larger branch lines. And those will continue to be owned by Montana Rail Link."
Following a short-lived campaign to "save" the Bitterroot Branch line by Ravalli County leaders ten years ago, both that line — and the Dixon Branch — have been largely unused, except for some freight car storage. An idea to use the corridor for a trail through Hamilton 4-years ago hasn't gained traction.
MRL says there's been no discussions yet about what to do with all of this branch line real estate. The focus now is to get the transfer done with BNSF.
"We're trying to ensure, at least at the outset, the smooth transition for our employees. Get Surface Transportation Board approval to end the lease. And then what we want to do is engage in conversations with these communities."
Bennion anticipates that will be an active discussion to find out what people would like to see done with the branch lines, even hinting the the BSPRA might want to talk about those right-of-ways.
"That's something that we would encourage, especially after the final details on the Surface Transportation Board process are done," Bennion said. "So, and continuing conversations with this group, if that makes sense, to the extent that there's any kind of interest on the branch lines as well."