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Montana Rail Link has furloughed 36 operating employees in the past couple of weeks and the Missoula-based railroad anticipates that number will continue to climb.

“Volume’s down and coal volume is really down. That’s really the main impact right now,” MRL spokesman Jim Lewis said Tuesday.

The furloughs have been divided almost evenly between Missoula, Helena and Laurel, each with 11 or 12, while two Livingston-based workers are also out of work.

Lewis said Missoula is seeing an average of 13 to 15 trains per day, down from an average of 18.1 in January through April 2015.

Most of those furloughed are operating locomotive engineers, among MRL’s highest paid employees, according to Lewis. 

MRL president Tom Walsh said the company has tried to avoid furloughs, but poor international market conditions combined with less demand from Pacific Northwest power plants has significantly reduced coal production in the region.

“Given current and forecasted volumes, we must align our workforce to current workload levels,” Walsh said in a statement. "We are hopeful the challenges facing the coal industry will ease in the future.”

The plummet that started in earnest in early 2015 is far from just a Montana Rail Link conundrum. Railroads across the nation are feeling the springtime pinch after a bleak winter of furloughs.

Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which conducts the bulk of the rail business in Montana, has temporarily furloughed roughly 4,500 employees, according to spokesman Matt Jones. The railroad announced in February it’s offering voluntary retirement incentives to workers with 10 or more years of experience in order to reduce the number of furloughed workers.

Union Pacific, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, had reportedly furloughed 4,100 employees across 23 states as of early March, and had put 1,500 locomotives in storage.

“If coal makes a resurgence, we’ll put people back to work,” a UP official said at the time. “However, I don’t think we’re going to see any real movement until after the presidential election.”

Rail volumes fluctuate throughout the year, Lewis said, and at MRL “we are hopeful for a strong soybean and corn harvest in the fall that will result in calling back furloughed employees," he said.

U.S. railroad coal shipments were down 32.5 percent – more than 450,000 carloads – in the first quarter of 2016. That was after a lackluster 2015 in which carloads dropped nearly 700,000 from the year before.

Lewis said MRL’s coal shipments are down 35 percent from this point in 2015. 

Class I railroads had nearly 20,000 fewer employees in April than they did in February 2015, a decrease of more than 11 percent.

Montana Rail Link is a Class II regional railroad and a partner of Class I BNSF, with a main line between Sandpoint, Idaho, and Billings.

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