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Out and About: Helena model train group celebrates MRL

Posted at 11:17 AM, Dec 28, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-28 13:17:27-05

HELENA — Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) will assume control of Montana Rail Link (MRL) on January 1, 2024, marking a significant change in Montana rail history.

On Saturday, December 30 the Western Montana Railroad Historical Association (WMRHA) will celebrate MRL's contributions to Montana railroading by running special model trains on its Last Chance layout.

Among the hobbyists who run model trains on the track is Trevor Hawkins, an engineer with MRL.

"It's amazing the country that you can see out there, that you can't ever see from the road," says Hawkins, "And running these beasts, 4400 horsepower up and down the mountain every day is the main thing I do."

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Entrepreneur Dennis Washington founded Montana Rail Link in 1987. Over the past 36 years, the company has moved millions of tons of freight across southern Montana. BNSF will operate Montana Rail Link as a subdivision, retaining all union and non-union employees with "similar pay, benefits, seniority and other terms of employment."

"I think BN will be great, but it's always sad to see another railroad going away," says Hawkins.

MRL operates and maintains track between Sandpoint, ID, and Huntley Montana. Much of that track is represented on the WMRHA's model of western Montana.

The Last Chance Layout primarily focuses on the four legacy railroads: the Great Northern, Milwaukee, Northern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. However, its overall goal is to provide a history of Montana railroading from the 1860s to the present day.

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"What we are trying to do is not only represent history but teach people how the railroads work," says model railroader and railroad history enthusiast Dan Stinson.

Stinson explained to MTN how MRL helped bring more freight to the tracks it ran in Montana.

"When MRL took over they had teams of guys who went out and talked to places that weren't shipping by rail anymore, to work with them, to find out what the problems were and how they could make that better," says Stinson.

Visitors to the WMRHA on Saturday will get to see model trains that look like the trains MRL has run across Montana daily. The trains are even hauling model freight that you may see on trains moving through Montana communities. That freight includes goods from coal to airplane fuselages.

The engineers driving the model trains will run them over trestles, through tunnels and over mountain passes that the terrain real trains pass through.

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"It gives [us] an opportunity to showcase what the railroad can do, what it is doing and it gives future generations something to look into as possible careers," says Shawn Curtis of VEK Railway Supply.

"I think the future for MRL is great," adds Hawkins, "Even though we are transferring to a new company I think it will go great. Everyone has a job and that's the big thing at the end of the day."

Visitors young and old are welcome to come view the model trains every Saturday at the WMRHA location at 619 Last Chance Gulch in Helena. The MRL trains will run from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 30.

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