Montana Rail Link will hire 90 new track laborers and switchmen in what’s shaking out to be a milestone maintenance year for the short-line railroad.

Spokesman Jim Lewis said MRL’s maintenance-of-way department alone will expand from 179 employees to 230. By winter they’ll have helped complete the last 10 miles of a decade-plus project to replace 160 miles of track with heavier, more durable rails.

We civilians won’t notice the difference, but it’s a significant milestone for MRL, which will have spent the 2018 equivalent of $80 million on the switch-out.

“We have been replacing it in 8- to 12-mile sections each year,” company president Tom Walsh told Progressive Railroading magazine last month. “We believe we can finish replacing it all in the next work season.”

Weathering the wear and tear of longer trains is the main reason for the work, which entails pulling up rails that weigh 115 pounds per yard with wider and taller ones of 132, 136 and 141 pounds.

At 6 inches at the base, the new rails are one-half inch wider. They’re also taller, which leads to increased resistance to rollovers, though Lewis said there’s no correlation between derailments and the smaller rails.

“There’s nothing wrong with the 115-pound rail. A lot of railroads still use it and it works fine,” he said. “But the heavier weight rail, from a safety perspective and from a wear perspective, is better in our minds.”

The changeout began in 2006, after the railroad completed another years-long project to replace 100 miles of conventional jointed rail on its main line with continuous-welded rail.

After hiring 131 new employees last year to work on a line that stretches from Huntley to Sandpoint, Idaho, MRL has budgeted for 150 to 170 more in 2018. That will push the number of people on the payroll to roughly 1,300.

Lewis said 40 of the new hires will be track laborers, with pay starting at $19.13 an hour and climbing to $21.25 after six months.

Another 50 switchmen are being sought. They make $25.85 an hour to start.

Lewis said the company is going through applications from the first round for both jobs, with plans to reopen the postings in June. Interested applicants can check careers.montanarail.com

The company does its own training, Lewis said, but “we tend to look for guys who have a background with the heavy equipment operating. That’s a plus, but it’s not required.”

“It’s amazing, especially in the last 10 years, how many of the jobs like on our tie gang are now done by machine,” he added. “It’s very rare that we have a guy out there with a spike maul hammering a spike. It’s all done with a machine that can drive eight spikes at one time, and into both sides of the rail.”

Beyond that, people versed in construction work, working with tools, or working with their hands are sought, said Lewis.

Increasing business on the MRL is a prime factor in the expanding work force.

Two years ago, 18.2 trains a day passed through Missoula on the MRL main line, up from 14.1 five years earlier. The average jumped to 20.1 in 2017 and is forecast to continue to region-wide rise.

“We’re kind of at a sweet spot for traffic right now where we’re seeing an increase in industrial products and an increased demand for U.S. export products in the international markets,” Lewis said. “So we’re seeing a pretty good growth rate for Montana Rail Link.”

Walsh told Progressive Railroading that the railroad’s best opportunity to grow lies in export coal. That remains dependent on the political climate and demand for U.S. coal on the Pacific Rim, but he said the number of carloads on the MRL line was likely to reach 130,000 by the end of last year and 150,000 units in 2018.

While growth pays the bills, it also presents a challenge to maintenance crews who do their work in six- or eight-hour windows while trains sit idling.

“It’s a balancing act,” Lewis said. “Probably the No. 1 thing we do is coordinate with BNSF and their Hi-Line maintenance programs.”

Texas-based BNSF, one of seven Class I railroads in the United States, works with MRL, the largest of the nation’s Class II railroads with more than 900 miles of main line and spur, to keep the trains running. It’s an ongoing logistical puzzle.

“What you don’t want is a double eight-hour window across the two main arteries of Montana, so that we’re not shutting down traffic completely across the state,” Lewis said.

The two railroads try to stagger their work windows so one may open in the daytime and the other at night.

Trains on the MRL line are staged at sidings and at the major yards in Laurel, Livingston, Helena and Missoula. The dispatch staff tracks them on a large computer screen in the Missoula office.

“They might have five or six or seven or eight trains waiting to go, so it can be challenging,” Lewis said. 

These days unit trains, those with cars all carrying the same commodity such as grain or coal, are up to a mile and a quarter long, or between 110 and 125 cars. They’re limited because of the length and number of sidings, which in turn are affected by geography and geopolitical restraints.

While there’s room to handle more trains on the Rail Link line, Lewis isn't sure how many more.

“It’s all dependent on a few factors, one being the mountain grades and the helper units. The more locomotives we have, the more trains we can push across the mountain grades,” Lewis said.

With that in mind, MRL has set aside more than $13 million of its $60 million capital investment plan for 2018 to buy four locomotives, bringing its fleet of the Big Blues up to 76.

More locomotives means finding more two-man crews to run the lead ones, Lewis said. A third factor to growing train traffic is building infrastructure to handle it.

Most of the company’s construction projects in recent years have been east of the mountains — an $8 million staging yard west of Laurel and larger yards in Laurel, Livingston and Helena; a new siding in Belgrade, and extended sidings in Belgrade and Austin, on the way up Mullan Pass. 

Missoula, meanwhile, has become a bottleneck.

“We might be able to run 30 trains a day until you get to Missoula, and then we have issues in Missoula,” Lewis said. “So our next expansion is potentially doing something with an extended siding toward East Missoula. And we’re looking at different fueling options for the Missoula yard.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

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