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Our first convention "off the property" has been successfully completed. For this year's convention we met on the Montana Rail Link in Missoula, Montana. We felt this was reasonable because this actually had been BN territory, and watching the MRL was actually like watching BNSF with a smattering of MRL blue.
Our meeting started with registration at Ruby's Inn, our convention hotel. As usual Dave Poplawski did a stellar job on organizing all of us. After we all were registered we headed to Famous Dave's for a nice dinner. After dinner we returned to the hotel and had our opening session. We were fortunate enough to have the services and knowledge of Alan Burns, a retired MRL engineer who the railroad had suggested we contact. Alan had started his career working for the Milwaukee as a brakeman and then engineer. He then went to Colorado University to get his bachelor’s degree. After finishing college he joined the BN in Alliance, Nebraska in the early years of Powder River Basin coal, watching the CB&Q backwater transition into a major coal artery. With the cyclic nature of railroading in the late 80's he realized he was going to be furloughed and heard about new opportunities on the MRL. Joining the railroad on opening day, he continued with the railroad until his retirement 2 years ago. Alan was able to give us an excellent history of the area, and had a presentation he had given to the Milwaukee Road Historical Association about the central focus of Butte on Montana railroading. He described all the railroads and personalities that surrounded this mining hub with railroads and was able to tell us how MRL fits into the modern evolution of Montana railroading. After that we were able to stay around to see some slides of BN in Washington State in the 70's until we all collapsed to bed.
Thursday morning started with breakfast and then a short trip to MRL Headquarters down the street. We were greeted by the very hospitable people of the MRL HQ and given some introductory remarks by Paul Elsenpeter, who would provide us a tour of the Car Shops and be our Banquet speaker later that evening. After this we were taken in 2 groups to tour the dispatching center, where dispatchers at the 3 desks control all of the MRL trains. Our tour guide was the Assistant Dispatcher, who related to us that her start in railroading was on CSX where she began as one of 700 applicants, which was whittled down after several interviews to 30 being hired, of whom 7 finished the program. We then were able to get our group picture at an ex-BN MRL caboose and head for the Car Shops. Paul had stopped all work in the shops to let us tour without PPE and we were able to see the 3 track car shop. They were justifiably proud of the organization of the shop which made it a safe and efficient environment. They were working on a Radio Control Caboose, several covered hoppers and a coal hopper as we toured, but they have worked on articulated double stack cars and Autoracks as well. The shop was more impressive as we learned that they had used the input from the workers to make the area much more efficient.
After that we headed for lunch and many of us hit a well stocked local hobby shop, which was less well stocked when we left. We then headed for Stevensville, MT and the home layout of Kirk Thompson. On arrival we found an ex-CB&Q wood caboose (complete with wood trucks) that he had on the property for guests and relatives to stay in during visits. He also had built a beautiful depot to house his layout, which featured a HO scale model of the MRL from Helena, across the Skyline trestle and Mullan Pass and on to Missoula staging. His track and signals were all complete, as was the CTC control system and he is now at the scenery stage. He was able to run several trains for us, and they ran extremely well. The highlight certainly was a BNSF loaded coal train, complete with mid-train MRL SD70ACe helpers.
As we returned from this, we met for our Annual Banquet. After a buffet dinner, we listened to, and watched, a presentation by Paul Elsenpeter about his family background with railroading, moving into his personal story and then how he came from the BNSF to work for MRL. We were also able to see some pictures of the new MRL Business Train, as well as obtain much information about the railroad. Everyone was certainly interested to learn that the 12 "new" SD70ACe's have already paid for themselves in fuel savings, and that more really new locomotives are on the way. He also shared how important continuing the pursuit of technology is for the railroad to make the entire railroad more efficient and safe. After that we had our annual Auction, highlighted by a clock donated by Peter Ferch and a beautiful blanket donated by MRL. With these highlights (and system maps of Alabama and Arkansas railroads on the other extreme) we were able to raise over $140 for the organization.
On Friday morning we met bright and early to head for our day on Mullan Pass. Alan had agreed to get us train line-ups, which despite several work windows, promised an excellent day of train watching. We headed off in car pools, making a number of stops to let Alan share with us some of the interesting and historical sites along the way. By noon, and several trains, we made it to the tunnel, ate box lunches from the hotel, and settled in to watch several meets west of the tunnel. As the afternoon wore on we were able to see more freights, and watch the helpers cut off and head back to the east. As they went they stopped near one of our members taking pictures and I was quite worried the crew might be upset that we were too close to the track - but no, they knew Alan and were sharing news and jokes!
Friday evening was dinner on our own, as people had made it back from the Pass by different routes. We then met for the Membership meeting, where we discussed a number of issues. Many excellent suggestions were heard from the members and discussed at the Board meeting which followed. We also discussed the issue of needing a new editor for the Expediter, and our ongoing need for material to place in the magazine. Once again we attempted to encourage members to share their information about the BN and BNSF. The stories of present and past employees would be particularly welcome, but also modeling articles would be particularly welcome. Even if you just have pictures with some type of captions please send them along. The subsequent Board actions included re-election of officers and a decision to increase our use of social media by the organization. We also voted to hold the 2014 Convention in Tulsa, and will work for it to be on the weekend after Father's day again next year. We also discussed a policy for evaluating our retained finances, as well as a possible program to pay for some articles for the Expediter. Since we no longer have an editor for the Expediter, Dave Poplawski has offered to do the October Convention issue and Kent Charles offered to do the January issue while we look for a new editor. Certainly they will both be looking for material for the Expediter.
Unfortunately, Friday evening ended on a down note with the news that there were 5 coal cars on the ground just west of the tunnel, closing the railroad completely - and with Saturday set for train watching!
Saturday dawned with the news that they were coming close to reopening the Pass and that there were several trains between Missoula and Sandpoint that could be found on our target for Saturday morning - Evaro Hill. Alan once again got us a line-up and we were off! We were able to catch several trains, and visit some great spots.
A number of us headed back to Missoula on the word that a J train was on its way. J trains are Boeing parts, often 737 fuselages. Soon after lunch it did appear, right behind the loaded coal train minus 5 cars, but unfortunately it was only 2 enclosed parts cars. None the less there was much interest in the short consist as an eminently interesting modeling project, so a number of members took off for Evaro Hill again to get more photos. Given that our N scale layout tour had had to cancel we all had a free afternoon to catch trains
By evening we all returned to the hotel. Pizza and pop were brought in with an opportunity for a number of members to share pictures they had taken during the convention, which was enjoyed by all. By 9 PM everyone was tired and off we went, planning to meet again in Tulsa next June.