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!
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 locomotive, 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.
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.
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.
Morning brings the daily crew meeting. Workers who are drilling and reinforcing the tunnel interior get orders for the day.
While the men get their orders, the real excitement is down at what is left of the west portal. With a 10 second countdown, the popping of blasting caps, and the low thud of the major concussion, a section of the south wall of the old tunnel is blown apart.
Time to go to work. Contractor Andy Weaver takes a last slurp of coffee before climbing on his track-hoe to clear away the tunnel wall rubble.
While Andy works the excavator, filling his off-road dump trucks, a large front-end loader has passed through the tunnel and attacks the pile from the east side.
Looking like some type of prehistoric dinosaur, the car mounted drill and grout rigs make ready for another day of work in the tunnel, while out on the main the helpers of a westbound grain heavy pass by.
Hi ho! Hi ho! Off to work we go!
While contractor crews work in and out of the tunnel, MRL railroaders Dave Cook and Fred Fessenden tend to the details of keeping the project "on track."
Moving a mountain implies taking it somewhere else. The tailings pile from the removal of 400' of tunnel stretches west for nearly 1/2 mile from the construction site.
Track and time up for the day, the last of the equipment exits the tunnel while inside the section house, tunnel crew foreman Nick Laviolette talks things over with project manager Dave Cook.
The reason for the need is illustrated by a westbound grain heavy slipping through the narrow confines of the daylighted portion of the tunnel. Improvements have already been made to for the mid-train manned helpers, while unmanned DPU still take the full brunt of the Mullan Tuunel smoke show!
I'll go back next summer to take a look at the project as it nears completion...more to come.