Although federal regulators are giving approval to Montana Rail Link's plans to surrender its lease and turn Montana cargo rail operations over to Burlington Northern Santa Fe, it will take most of this year to complete the transition.

Last week, the federal Surface Transfer Board gave its approval to MRL's request to conclude its long-term lease with BNSF to provide freight services as a carrier running between Billings and Sandpoint, Idaho. The deal to transfer the operations was announced last year, with MRL saying it had decided to step away from the arrangement that's been in place since the mid-1980s.

The STB approval is the endorsement of the transfer that was worked out between the two operators and includes not only rolling stock but the MRL workforce. In the agreement, BNSF is committing to "retain all union and non-union employees of MRL in their current jobs with similar pay, benefits, seniority and other terms of employment." Some union leaders had questioned the terms of that agreement as the transfer was analyzed last year.

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But there's still a lot of work to do before MRL is gone

In a joint press release, the companies said the transition will now move forward but will take months to complete. They hope to have everything complete by the end of this year.

The deal closes the books on a historic era for Montana railroad history, which started when businessman Dennis Washington launched Montana Rail Link in 1987.

“Our team is eager and ready for the next chapter in MRL’s history. We have created a strong culture at MRL and BNSF shares our values. Our shared commitment to safety and customer service are bedrock values within both companies that will never change.” -Joe Racicot, President of MRL

Dennis Bragg photo
Dennis Bragg photo

“We are excited to welcome the MRL team. They know this railroad better than anyone and we’re proud to have them join BNSF. The line will become the MRL Subdivision of our Montana Division in recognition of the shared heritage of BNSF and MRL.” -Katie Farmer, BNSF President, and CEO

In announcing the deal last year, BNSF had said the change would improve the efficiency of freight moving through the Northern Rockies by eliminating the need to transfer loads between the two operators. Last year, more than 95% of the freight moving on the MRL leased line had been moved for BNSF.

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