Prototype Profile: Montana Rail Link

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Prototype Profile: Montana Rail Link

The Montana Rail Link is a privately owned Class II regional shortline railroad operating primarily within the state of Montana, in the United States and is the eighth largest railroad in the US. The Montana Rail Link, or MRL, was formed in 1987 when owner Dennis Washington agreed to a long term lease of the Burlington Northern’s former Northern Pacific mainline across southern Montana. We’ll take a look at the MRL in this month’s Prototype Profile: Montana Rail Link.

MRL helpers on skyline trestle

An MRL mid-train helper set crossing Skyline Trestle at Mullan Pass.
Photo by the author

Montana Rail Link operates the former NP mainline from Huntley, Montana (east of Billings) to Sandpoint, Idaho, and has trackage rights over the BNSF from Sandpoint to Spokane, Washington. The majority of the traffic on the MRL is actually BNSF trains that are handed off to the MRL at Laurel, Montana (just west of Billings) complete with BNSF power, and then returned to the BNSF at either Sandpoint or Spokane (or handed off at Spokane and returned at Laurel). These trains run over 900 miles of track in their various duties, crossing two mountain passes – Bozeman Pass between Laurel and Bozeman and Mullan Pass west of Helena.

The Montana Rail Link does operate two daily manifest freight trains of their own, the Laurel-Missoula (or the LM) and the Missoula-Laurel (or the ML). In addition, a number of way freights handle local traffic, industries, and maintenance of way trains. Altogether, the MRL moves over 350,000 car loads per year, on average.


MRL’s last operating SD45, #382, and an SD70ACe at Helena, Montana.
Photo by the author

For the entirety of its existence, the MRL has used EMD power exclusively. Until 2005 the railroad utilized only second-hand four- and six-axle EMDs – GP7s, GP40s, SD40s, and SD45s primarily. However, in 2005 the MRL took delivery of their first ever new power, an EMD SD70Ace. Over the next few months more of the new beasts arrived on the rails, for a grand total of 16 units. A second order was placed in 2013, comprising a total of 9 units. The SD70ACes have been replacing the MRL’s aging SD40s and SD45s. The MRL did own a pair of rare full cowl EMD F45s that were used in both freight service and on office car specials. Sadly, one of the two was scrapped in 2014 and the other sold to a private owner.

MRL F45s

MRL’s two F45s sitting in storage at Livingston, Montana a few years prior to removal from the roster.
Photo by the author

Because of the steep grades over Bozeman Pass and Mullan Pass, the MRL makes regular use of manned helper sets. These helper sets usually consist of four SD70ACes or two SD70ACes and an SD40, depending on the power and traction needed. For especially heavy trains, a helper set in the middle and another on the end of the train is not unusual. On busy days, the helpers spend their day going up and down the passes several times. The helpers are based out of Laurel, Montana and Helena, Montana.

MRL helpers at Blossburg MT

MRL mid-train helpers at Blossburg, Montana, atop Mullan Pass.
Photo by the author

The type of freight moved over the MRL consists primarily of coal, grain, oil, and wood/lumber. The MRL is also a primary route for moving Boeing airliner fuselages, wings, tails, and parts to their assembly plant in the Seattle, Washington area. A few autoracks and container trains move over the MRL rails as well.

Planes on a train

A Boeing fuselage on a special flatcar, at Helena, Montana.
Photo by the author

The Montana Rail Link has an active modeling and historical society. You can find details about them on their Facebook page.

If you are looking to model the Montana Rail Link, or just add some MRL cars or engines to your fleet, you are in luck. A number of different companies produce various MRL train cars and engines, and you can purchase decals to customize your own MRL cars and engines.

MRL Model Links

Z Scale

MRL SD45 by American Z Line
MRL SD70ACe by American Z Line

N Scale

MRL 50 ft. Boxcar by Fox Valley Models
MRL 50 ft. Boxcar by Bachmann Silver Series
MRL Diesel Decals by Microscale
MRL Freight Car Decals by Microscale

HO Scale

MRL SD70Ace by Athearn Genesis
MRL F45 by Athearn Genesis
MRL SD45-2 by Athearn Genesis
MRL SD40 by Athearn
MRL Wide Vision Caboose by Walthers Trainline
MRL 50 ft. Boxcar by Fox Valley Models

O Scale

MRL SD70ACe by MTH Premier
MRL 3-bay Hopper by MTH Rail King

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Robert Thomson

Robert W. Thomson is a life-long railfan, the son of a former L&N Railroad B&B gang foreman, and an amateur photographer. He was born and raised in southeast Tennessee but now lives in Butte, Montana with his wife, Connie and cat, Charlie. Robert has worked as a park ranger, underground mine tour guide, freelance roleplaying game writer, and ran his own roleplaying game publishing company until selling it in 2012.

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