First, just to clarify the Montana Rail Link statement: No “interchange” at Miles City. Montana Rail Link operates from Jones Jct., MT (about 30 miles east of Laurel) to Spokane. From Sandpoint to Spokane, trains operate over BNSF. Most of the trains operated are BNSF trains, and MRL crews handle them from Laurel to Hauser Yard or Spokane. Trains between Jones Jct., Huntley, and Laurel are operated (to/from Sheridan or Glendive) with BNSF crews, except for locals and switch crews working primarily in the Billings and East Billings areas.
MRL is almost completely captive to BNSF with common stations at Jones Jct., Huntley, Mossmain, Laurel, Garrison, and Sandpoint. It is possible for MRL to interchange to UP at Sandpoint, but this is extremely rare. MRL does not serve Butte or Anaconda. BNSF operates its Copper City subdivision from Garrison through Silver Bow to Butte, and interchanges with UP at Silver Bow, and the Butte, Anaconda, and Pacific (for Anaconda) at Silver Bow (mostly) and Butte. UP no longer ventures into Butte. To my knowledge, there are no regular customers at Anaconda, but there is a good-sized yard, and the BA&P uses it for car storage.
So, just to clarify, if cars arrive at Silver Bow from the UP destined to Missoula or Helena for example, the BNSF local from Butte handles them to Garrison where they are then taken to destination by Montana Rail Link.
As for the C&NW or UP being “compelled” to operate the Milwaukee Pacific Extension: I would guess that would have come with quite the price tag (paid for by a government entity, no doubt). No one (including the UP) wanted it (as it was the high-cost railroad to the Pacific Northwest with a lousy feeder lines), and the C&NW was hardly in a financial position to run it. The “New Milwaukee” proposal was declared financially unsustainable by the ICC, which was the right call.
That “the Northern Tier with one and only one player” (evidently a reference to Burlington Northern after the Milwaukee Road bowed out west of Miles City) is as irrelevant as it is erroneous. Especially in light of the fact that Mr. Gilbert had labeled the Milwaukee as “redundant” and a railroad “should have never been built.” So, then, why should it have been kept for “competition” if the opinion is that it shouldn’t be there in the first place?
That the Milwaukee Road was there, doesn’t mean it should have been, or that it could have provided meaningful “competition” in perpetuity. It couldn’t have. The reality is that the Milwaukee Pacific Extension left a very light footprint on the area. Now that it’s gone, there is little out there that wouldn’t be had the Milwaukee not been around. Roundup and Lewistown were already established before the Milwaukee showed up. St. Maries likely would have gotten a railroad without the Milwaukee line. The largest city on the Pacific Extension west of Miles City served exclusively by the Milwaukee was Othello, Washington, which has actually grown significantly since the Milwaukee pulled out (though the line from Warden to Othello remains in service). Othello’s growth was/is largely due to agriculture and the establishment of the Columbia Basin Project.
As for Burlington Northern/BNSF being the “only player” in the “Northern Tier,” there are two sides to this: First, it just isn’t. Minnesota had alternate routes via C&NW/UP (now UP) and Soo Line/CP/UP (now CP/UP); North Dakota also had the Soo Line/CP/UP alternative, as did/does the Spokane area. Second of all: Who cares? Montana – served largely by just BN/BNSF (including MRL) – is hardly alone. Southern Idaho, Utah – except for Provo to Ogden, Las Vegas, Tucson, San Diego (not counting the defunct SD&AE), the Western half of Colorado, all of New Mexico - except for the metropolises of Vaughn and Deming, and Florida – except for Jacksonville and the east coast to Miami – all have only one major freight railroad – and in many cases – have a greater population served.
Montana Rail Link on average operates only one through freight train of its own between Laurel and Missoula. West of Missoula, freight rides BNSF run-through trains. That doesn’t leave a lot of traffic for a second carrier. The Milwaukee’s Northern Montana lines (north from Harlowton), carried a fair amount of traffic (grain), but as wheat shifted to Pacific Northwest ports as destinations, a Milwaukee Road routing was wildly circuitous (a car of wheat from Great Falls to Portland had to go 200 miles southeast to Harlowton before heading west). And the grade from Great Falls to Lewistown alone on the Milwaukee was steeper than it was all the way from Great Falls to Portland. (The Milwaukee route had hills with grades of 1.5%, 1.4%, 2%, 1.7%, 2.2%, and 3.6% compared to BN with one short 1.3% and everything else 1% or less.) As unit trains evolved – had it miraculously survived – the Milwaukee would have been shut out of 95% of grain from Montana, and would have been non-competitive for other origin locations simply due to its inferior profile.
Another aspect of hypocrisy in the “BN-is-the-only-player” department is one that never seems to be mentioned, and that is BN/BNSF’s domination of the state of South Dakota, which has much more ag-oriented rail business than in Montana. In my opinion, the reason that South Dakota’s rail near-monopoly is rarely so indicated is because the trackage involved is mostly Milwaukee Road trackage. Yes, the Milwaukee was the dominant carrier in South Dakota, and its trackage is what makes BNSF as such today. Short lines and a regional railroad exist in South Dakota, but much of the ag traffic (including most trains out of the four shuttle grain train facilities on the Rapid City, Pierre, and Eastern for interchange at Wolsey) interchanges with BNSF (ex-Milwaukee Road). I find this interesting, because west of Terry, Montana, the Milwaukee perished due to its weaknesses; In South Dakota it survives because of them, when - as the state’s dominant railroad - they sought to pull out altogether by 1982. As a result, C&NW routes were shortlined or abandoned and BN (ex-GN) routes were downgraded or abandoned as the state of South Dakota pumped money into the “Core” of ex-Milwaukee Road lines and Burlington Northern was selected to operate them. In South Dakota, what was once the Milwaukee Road is largely “the only player,” but it’s never referenced as such, in contrast to BNSF routes in Montana.