By Michael Howell
The end of an era may be immanent. In this case it’s the era of railroad service to the Bitterroot Valley. Some would say that’s a drastic call. But the signs are looming.
The tracks have in fact been closed down since June when owner Montana Rail Link (MRL) placed an embargo on the rail line, claiming that erosion of the bank near a trestle north of Stevensville presented a safety hazard.
According to Julie Foster of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority (RCEDA), the railroad company offered existing contractors for delivery in the county a subsidy to offset the cost of trucking supplies from the rail depot in Missoula while the rail line was down.
About four months later, however, on October 8, 2011, MRL filed a Notice of Discontinuance of Service that would take effect in April of 2012, essentially mothballing the rail line.
On October 24, the company convened a private meeting with owners of shipping contracts, RCEDA officials, and county and state elected officials under the condition that the press be excluded. That meeting was attended by shippers Max Downing of Selway Corporation, Mike Flieger of Lakeland Feeds, Scott Kurfman of Pfau’s Pellet Mill, Jerry Thorstad of Energy Partners, and Chuck Thompson of Cenex Harvest States, all of whom use the railroad service and some of whom have invested heavily in the improvements at their rail site in the last few years. Also in attendance was Commissioner Suzy Foss, Senator Bob Lake, Representative Ron Ehli, Patti Furniss of the Job Center, RCEDA officials and some congressional aides as well as MRL officials.
At that meeting, according to Foster, MRL officials informed them that the company could apply for and receive permission to discontinue service on the Bitterroot line. They said it was not simply due to the $100,000 cost of repairs at the flood-damaged site, but that there were eight bridges in the county in need of repairs. They also claimed to be losing close to $200,000 annually in operating the line.
Linda Frost, spokesperson for MRL, confirmed that the company had placed an embargo on the line in June and subsequently filed a Notice of Discontinuance of Service in early October.
“It’s important to establish that MRL is in the business of transportation,” said Frost. “We have five months to explore with RCEDA and potential shippers the viable options for what business opportunities there may be in the Bitterroot Valley.”
Frost said that it was “safe to say” that in 1987 the company shipped 1,000 cars per year to the Bitterroot Valley. She said in 2010 that had dropped to 99 cars. The first five months of 2011 they have only shipped 34.
“The numbers are dwindling to a point of major concern,” she said. Frost said that the shut down of the valley’s timber industry had a lot to do with those dwindling numbers.
“It’s a tough story, but when you look at the numbers, you recognize we need to do something,” said Frost. She said the company would continue to meet with shippers, potential shippers and RCEDA officials over the next five months to see if there is anything that can be done.
Frost also said that filing for a discontinuance of service would allow the closure of the line without full abandonment so that the line could be opened up again if the economy turned around and the operation became viable again.
The railroad was first punched into the valley when silver was discovered in the mountains near what is today the town of Victor. By 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad had reached Missoula from the West Coast.
“Because the NP Railroad charter prohibited building its own branch lines, Samuel T. Hauser and others arranged to build most of the branch lines in Montana and, after completion, were sold to the N.P. Railroad. There was a great deal of speculation whether the Bitter Root track would be located on the east side or west side of the river. The decision was made by Andrew B. Hammond, a Missoula business man, and Samuel Hauser to lay the track on the west side because Hauser needed the rails accessible to his silver mine,” it states in the History of Ravalli County at rootsweb.ancestry.com
The line was completed to Victor by 1887 and went on to Grantsdale in 1888. It was extended as far south as Darby in 1905. By 1928 it was moved to the east side of the valley where it remains today.
Use of the tracks held steady in the 1990s and surged following the fires of 2000 when log hauls drove the traffic count on the line up to 1,000 cars per year. By 2003, however, the traffic had slowed and the track was washed out by floods between Hamilton and Darby and not repaired. Reduced traffic continued between Missoula and Hamilton until June of 2011 when it was closed due to another flood event.
Foster of RCEDA says that the railroad is a vital economic lifeline for the valley and essential to several businesses that depend upon rail shipping to remain competitive.
“We are going to work hard in the next several months to do whatever we can to help keep this rail line open,” said Foster.