Rusty Rails to Polson

By Beacon Staff

A fine layer of rust is covering Montana Rail Link’s tracks from Dixon to Polson, which hasn’t had train service in almost five months, and that is forcing farmers to look for other ways to ship this year’s harvest.

Trains used to run on the Polson line, which splits from MRL’s main line at Dixon, once a week, but flooding in the spring damaged the track near Moiese. Since then towns like Ronan and Polson have been left without freight rail service. The line to Polson and another from Missoula to Darby have been placed under an embargo, or temporarily shut down, and both lines will likely remain without service until there is an upswing in business, according to MRL spokesperson Lynda Frost.

“There’s no plans to (lift the embargo) until there are new business opportunities,” Frost said, adding that it doesn’t make economic sense to repair the railroad and continue operating the line.

According to Frost, 2,004 cars of loaded freight were either delivered to or shipped from industries along the Polson line in 2006. Four years later, in 2010, that number had dropped to 221 cars. Frost said the closure of the Plum Creek Timber Co. sawmill in Pablo, one of the largest shippers, was a major blow to the line.

But the customers that do remain along the line, including Lakes Glacier View Farm in Ronan and Polson, have had to look for other ways to ship harvested grain this fall at increased costs.

“When they pulled out, it put us in a pinch,” said Pat Lake, one of the owners of the family-run farm.

Lake said they had hoped to ship 40 cars of grain this fall but, since the line was shut down, they’ve had to turn to trucks, a much more expensive means of transportation. In the past, about one quarter of the farm’s harvest was moved by rail and it saved about $1,200 for every rail car shipped, Lake said, because it takes three or four trucks to haul the same amount of grain a rail car can. With the railroad, the farm saved around $40,000 annually.

Besides the savings, Lake is also running into problems with storage because he can’t get enough grain trucks to quickly haul the harvest. Earlier this fall, Lake said he had to buy two grain storage units, which cost the farm more than $160,000.

“We weren’t budgeted to do this so we had to borrow money,” Lake said. “We really got used to the service and really relied on it.”

Forrest Johnsen at Westland Seed in Ronan also said it has been tough to get trucks to come and deliver things like corn and fertilizer because so many truckers have gone out of business.

“If this was 10 years ago this wouldn’t be a problem because there were enough shippers to cover the harvest,” Johnsen said. “We can survive without (the railroad) but our costs go up on stuff and that eventually goes down the line.”

Johnsen remains hopeful the MRL trains will return soon and doesn’t understand why after decades of service the railroad has stopped running.

Lake said earlier in the year local grain shippers got together and offered to help pay for the repairs on the flood-damaged tracks, but the railroad wasn’t interested.

“Sounds like they made up their mind years ago to shut this down, but they haven’t given any good reasons,” Lake said.

Frost said the railroad has met with the local growers and tried to help them find shipping alternatives. While there have been several suggestions about how to continue service to Polson, she said there have been no formal proposals. Frost said the railroad was still interested in serving the farmers, but the lack of freight traffic on the branch has made it difficult.

“We’d certainly like to continue the discussion with the grain shippers and we need to keep these lines of communication open,” Frost said.