Montana Rail Link crews will spend Friday morning emptying the Bitterroot Valley of the last 156 empty coal railcars stored there for the past two years.
“We ask that the public exercise caution when approaching a railroad crossing between the hours of 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. tomorrow," MRL information officer Jim Lewis said in a media alert Thursday.
The cars are owned by a company that Lewis said he couldn’t disclose due to a confidential agreement. They've been parked between Missoula and Florence on MRL’s Bitterroot branch line since the spring of 2016, during a downturn in rail shipments of coal.
“It is MRL’s hope that these markets recover soon and we do what we do best; providing safe and reliable transportation service to Montana businesses and regional rail shippers,” the company said at the time.
Montana Rail Link and news outlets received a number of complaints, most of them centering on the strings of cars blocking the view on the east side of U.S. Highway 93. One Missoulian letter writer from Florence jokingly suggested that every even-numbered car “in their vast string of eye blight” be filled with flowers, and the rest be stocked with trout.
Lewis said last year there were some 600 empty coal cars stored on the line at one point. MRL locomotives started pulling them out last fall and winter.
On Friday, the remaining coal cars will all come out at once and be taken to the Missoula yard north of West Broadway.
"We will have railroad personnel at each crossing to ensure the safety of our employees and the general public," Lewis announced. "The process will result in minimal delays as we anticipate crossings being occupied for a very short amount of time."
He told the Missoulian that some of the cars will be returned to service "across the national railroad network." Others are scheduled to be scrapped, and a portion will be stored at other locations.
The tracks cross the Bitterroot River near Buckhouse Bridge and run through central Missoula, crossing the Clark Fork River near McCormick Park.
MRL spent last Sunday rebuilding the crossing at the intersection of Brooks Street and Reserve, a process that Lewis said went “great,” finishing four hours ahead of schedule.
The Bitterroot line was built in 1887 to Grantsdale and extended to Victor in 1905. Samuel T. Hauser used his connections to convince the Northern Pacific to fund the initial project, and Missoula magnate A.B. Hammond did the actual construction, according to historians Bill and Jan Taylor in their book “The Northern Pacific’s Rails to Gold and Silver.”
Hauser, Hammond and others formed the Missoula and Bitter Root Valley Railroad Company in January 1887, a month before Hauser resigned his position as territorial governor of Montana to concentrate on business interests.
It has been several years since the Bitterroot tracks saw any activity other than for storage purposes.
“This is definitely not the end of the Bitterroot line,” Lewis said Thursday. “We are hopeful that at some point in the future business opportunities will arise that require rail service in the Bitterroot Valley.”