Moving a Mountain
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The Montana Rail Link is a regional line that tends to think big. Maybe it's the big skies of the Big Sky State. When you are having issues with a tunnel what do you do? Remove part of the tunnel, of course!

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It's a long story, I am far from knowing all of the details. Essentially, the narrow smokey hole through the Great Divide west of Helena, known as the Mullan Tunnel needed an upgrade. With the arrival of the newer hi-tech locomotives, the SD 70 ACe to be exact, the narrow confines, high heat and thick carbon laden exhaust was more than the computers and circuitry of the new engines could handle. Unit after unit, the engines assigned to help trains over Mullan Pass were falling victim to the harsh interior of the tunnel.


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The solution? Remove 400' of the west end of the tunnel and bore the remainder out to a larger size to allow better air flow. Implied in that is removing 400' of mountain! The project began as soon as the weather allowed in the Spring of 2009 with construction halted for the winter.

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This past September I visited the site, and thanks to the good folks at the MRL was able to document some of the work being done. Here are a few of the photos taken.

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Early morning has the tunnel crew gathered for the daily meeting and orders.

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Meanwhile, all the excitement is to the east, where with the popping of the blasting caps, the the deep thud and concussion of the main blast, a portion of the old south tunnel wall is blown apart.


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Taking one last slurp of coffee, contractor Andy Weaver gathers his crew...

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..and climbing into his trackhoe, he starts cleaning away the debris. Speed is important, as the crew working in the tunnel needs the right of way clear before they can begin their day. Moving a mountain implies taking it to someplace else; the tailings pile stretches nearly 1/2 mile west from the contruction site.

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Looking like some type of pre-historic dinosaur, the drilling rig and grout train make ready head down into the tunnel. The machines and crews will work the day, drilling out and reinforcing the tunnel walls and roof.

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Hi ho! Hi ho! It's off to work we go!


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While crews work both inside and outside of the tunnel, MRL project manager Dave Cook, and B&B gang member Fred Fessenden tend to the many details it takes to keep the project running including an update from tunnel crew foreman, Nick Laviolette.

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Track and time up for another day, the last of the equipment exits the tunnel for the safety of the Blossburg house track.

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Construciton done for another day, a westbound grain heavy slips through the daylighted west portal. The 5-set ACe helper emerges in a relatively smoke free enviornment as compared to the "old days," but the umanned DPU is taking the full brunt of a Mullan smoke show.

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Although construction is done for this year, MRL and the contrctors estimate it will be well into next summer before the entire job is complete. Also to be removed is the old east portal of the Mullan Tunnel as well.

So as they once said in the old days of radio seriels, To Be Continued...