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Montana Rail Link is adding a second track over the East Missoula overpass in the next six weeks to help unplug the bottleneck of trains through its Missoula yard.

TOMMY MARTINO, MISSOULIAN

Adding an extended siding across the overpass at East Missoula is another step on Montana Rail Link’s plan to improve the flow of freight trains through its Missoula yard.

“It has one track across it now,” Jim Lewis, MRL’s information officer told the Missoulian on Friday. “Back in the Northern Pacific days it was a double track pretty far east of Missoula, and at some point that double track got ripped out.

“What we’re doing is adding that track back, although we’re not going to be extending it as far as the NP did.”

Northern Pacific crews finished installing the last section of double track from Missoula to Garrison in August 1909. Eastbound traffic went on the south track, and westbound trains took the north track. Almost all of one track was removed in 1959.

Traffic on the MRL line jumped from 14.1 trains each day in 2014 to 20.1 last year, and is expected to keep climbing if track clearance allows. As it amps up there’s pressure to reduce wait time in yards at Missoula, Helena, Livingston and Laurel, Lewis said.

Unit trains carrying all one commodity such as coal or grain stretch for more than a mile. Longer sidings help the flow but also allow for even more cars per train.

Lewis said work has been underway since March to reconfigure the Missoula yard with the same goal in mind.

“The end result will be a better flow of trains in and out of Missoula by adding the additional track and not having to stage things at the yard,” he said.

The East Missoula overpass is on a blind curve of East Broadway near an Interstate 90 interchange. MRL said work on the overpass will be ongoing through June and into early July. Highway traffic will be winnowed to one lane near the railroad project from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Flaggers will be on site for traffic control, and Lewis said it won’t impact the on- and off-ramps of the interstate.

“It’ll kind of change every day as far as the amount of time the lane is closed,” he said. “Every day isn’t going to be the same.”

The entire Missoula yard project won’t be completed until near summer’s end.

It’s part of MRL’s aggressive maintenance program for 2018 that totals $68 million, some $8 million more than announced in January. The Missoula yard work and similar reconfigurations in the Helena yard are primarily responsible for the increase.

“Helena’s a big part of the network because that’s where we need the help engines to get trains over the pass,” Lewis said. “The more we can improve the fluidity of the Helena yard, the more it will improve our velocity.”

To get the work done, MRL has beefed up its track laborer force by 34, up to 262. Steel and tie gangs began work in March. The steel gang consists of 32 employees and 18 pieces of equipment. The tie gang consists of 41 employees and 23 pieces of equipment.

MRL operates Montana’s southern track under a long-term lease from railroad giant BNSF of Texas.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian