Where the Tracks End

By Beacon Staff

Preliminary talks about relocating or removing some of Kalispell’s railroad tracks are only in the early stages, but it is clear that city officials think downtown would benefit from fewer or no tracks, as long as no railroad customers are affected.

Kalispell City Manager Jim Patrick has been talking with officials from both Mission Mountain Railroad and Cenex Harvest States (CHS)-Kalispell about relocating or removing tracks around the Kalispell Center Mall area and maybe elsewhere. He has also spoken to potential landowners.

“Talks have been going on frequently for the past few months,” Patrick said. “But it’s too early to say details.”

Patrick said talk of redirecting certain tracks, removing others and simply stopping some before they reach the heart of Kalispell’s city area is designed to make it so the tracks don’t run through downtown. Nothing can be done, however, until negotiators find a new home for CHS, the railroad’s biggest customer within Kalispell. If CHS and its large grain silos stay, so does the railroad. The tracks end a little southwest of CHS.

“(CHS) needs to be on a rail spur somewhere,” Patrick said, “somewhere on the line closer to Columbia Falls. They would like to relocate from downtown.”

Northwest Drywall, Mission Mountain’s other customer at the end of the Kalispell line, has also been involved in discussions, said Steve Sheldon, marketing manager for Mission Mountain.

Sheldon stressed, however, that the only portion of tracks he is considering moving is the section north of the Kalispell Center Mall.

Mission Mountain Railroad began operating the Kalispell short line in December 2004. It is a branch of Watco Companies Inc., and leases the tracks from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. Mission Mountain owns a smaller short line between Stryker and Eureka. The Kalispell railroad is a handling carrier line that picks up railcars from the BNSF main line in Columbia Falls, delivers goods to the appropriate destination and then returns the cars to BNSF.

“In a nutshell, the city of Kalispell wants to do some revitalization of downtown,” Sheldon said. “Us and Cenex are in spots they would like and we’re willing to be a good neighbor to the city of Kalispell.”

“Will we keep the tracks or lose the tracks in Kalispell?” Sheldon asked. “I don’t know, but keep in mind we’re under lease. We don’t own the track.”

He said it’s too early to say much of anything right now.

Nonetheless, the railroad is discussed within the ranks of Kalispell city officials. They all stress that nothing is imminent or even remotely concrete, but it is clear that the railroad is an issue.

Kalispell’s senior planner Sean Conrad, who has not been involved with talks between the city and Mission Mountain, would like to see all of the tracks removed from downtown, but only if the railroad customers have a home first.

“Hopefully, (the tracks) do come out,” he said. “It’s tough to have the railroad in here.”

Conrad said removing the tracks would benefit the city in a number of ways. First of all, it would provide more opportunities for street crossings, which Patrick mentioned. Currently, Conrad said, only six streets cross the tracks. Secondly, it would allow for more development, including businesses and residences that jibe with the area’s character better than industrial structures. The mall could also expand. Thirdly, the city could use the abandoned rail bed for a pedestrian/bike trail.

Mike Baker, director of Kalispell Parks and Recreation, said he has thought about a bike trail along Mission Mountain’s Railroad bed for years if the tracks were ever abandoned. He knows the railroad’s importance now to businesses such as CHS, but he said the course of history points to eventual abandonment. He brought up the existing Great Northern Rails to Trails path south and west of Kalispell as evidence.

“I just think it’s a matter of time before that railroad is abandoned,” he said. “It’s an exhibit already in place. I’m not saying it will go out of business tomorrow or the next day, but given the opportunity it could change rather rapidly.”

Along with a proposed bike trail that will run along the U.S. 93 bypass, Conrad and Baker said Kalispell could go from being an inconvenient biking town to having a widespread system of interconnected pedestrian paths. Baker doesn’t know when a “linear park” like this could happen and hasn’t spoken with Mission Mountain yet. In theory, the trail system could connect Kalispell to Columbia Falls, Kila and Somers.

“I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with the railroad and talk about the possibility for a trail,” he said. “In the backs of everyone’s minds, this would be an ideal situation.”

Sheldon said he would entertain conversation about a bike trail.

“We would be willing to talk about it if specifics were presented,” Sheldon said. “But without them it would be inappropriate to comment.”

For now, though, Mission Mountain isn’t even considering the possibility of abandoning its tracks, Sheldon said.

“Everybody’s wondering if there are rails coming (out),” Sheldon said. “There are no rails coming (out). The only way it would come up is if our customers, the city, BNSF and us wanted it. That’s a lot.”

Patrick says the railroad is necessary for certain sectors of Kalispell’s economy, especially agriculture, and is only proposing changes to the tracks that cut through the city center, not the rest. CHS General Manager Mark Lalum said his business ships 300 railcars of grain a year on the railroad. He estimates that Flathead’s agricultural economy saves $150,000 annually by using the railroad instead of trucks.

“If the track wasn’t there,” Lalum said, “it would cripple the agriculture in the valley. It’s absolutely vital to our agriculture.”

Mission Mountain operates about 7,500 railcars a year on the Kalispell shortline. That comes out to be a little more than 20 per day, or not quite a train a day, going by Sheldon’s 30 cars to each train estimate. Some of those go into downtown Kalispell, but many serve businesses like Pacific Steel, Glacier Stone and Plum Creek on the outskirts or east of the city. Many people, like Conrad, feel as if the trains never pass through the city.

“That’s because railroads generally work when you don’t,” Sheldon said. “It’s not really visible during the day.”

Until negotiations go somewhere, Sheldon considers such preliminary talks a moot point.

“We’re under a long-term lease – it’s forever for us,” Sheldon said. “The profitability is there for us. We’re not going anywhere.”