Missoula County Commissioner Nicole Rowley received a courtesy call late last month from Montana Rail Link. The company was planning to utilize a seldom-used stretch of track between Missoula and Florence for the storage of hundreds of empty railcars, she recalls, and spokesman Jim Lewis wanted the county to know about MRL's plans, in case officials got any complaints from nearby residents.
"They knew that we'd probably receive some calls about it," Rowley says, though she acknowledges she's received no such calls yet.
Over the past several weeks, MRL has stashed 300 railcars in a broken string along the Bitterroot branch—a total that could increase to as many as 550. According to Lewis, the storage project is due to a nationwide decline in rail shipments in recent months, particularly coal. For MRL alone, coal shipments in the first five months of 2016 were down 42 percent from the same period last year; nationwide that drop was 33.3 percent.
"At this time it is unclear how long the empty cars will be in storage," Lewis said in an email response to questions. "It is MRL's hope that these markets recover soon and we can do what we do best; providing safe and reliable transportation service to Montana businesses and regional rail shippers."
Lewis added MRL has stored approximately 3,000 railcars at "multiple locations" between Huntley, Mont., and Sandpoint, Idaho, as a result of the decline. MRL had also furloughed nearly 50 employees "as recently as a few weeks ago," Lewis said, though the company has "begun the process" of bringing some of them back to work due to grain shipments from the Midwest.
- photo by Joe Weston
- Since early June Montana Rail Link has stashed more than 300 railcars along the Bitterroot branch, occupying more than three miles of track between Lolo and Florence.
The company's storage project prompted questions not just from county officials but from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Regional Supervisor Randy Arnold, after hearing about the situation from the county, reached out to Lewis in late May for more information. The agency's primary concern was twofold, he says: Would the cars block public fishing access sites, and would they hinder wildlife movement in the valley floor?
The answer to both appeared to be no. Arnold says all the fishing access sites were accommodated and a number of 250-foot gaps were left at various points along the stored cars to allow both vehicular and wildlife passage.
"The sense that I had and my wildlife staff had was that wildlife, they will be impacted by it but I think the impact is going to be pretty minimal," Arnold says. "I think they're going to figure it out."
FWP and the county intend to continue monitoring the ongoing storage situation. Each seems content with how MRL has handled things for now, but Rowley says it'll be important to keep an open line of communication with the company to respond to any complaints or concerns that may arise, especially given the indefinite time frame of the project.
"It's one of those issues where we don't have jurisdiction over the railroad," Rowley says. "It's them storing their property on their property."