Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

With no immediate plans to run freight down the Bitterroot Branch line, Montana Rail Link and Missoula County still hope to remove several rail crossings until the day comes where they're needed again.

On Tuesday, commissioners approved a “tracks out of service” agreement with the rail company and hopes to complete the work this season, though time is running short, they said.

“We still have a possibility of getting the work done this year,” said county engineer Erik Dickson. “One of the biggest concerns was how this potentially effects any connection for the Bitterroot Branch for a commuter rail.”

While it may be a distant vision, the day could come where the population in the Bitterroot Valley elevates a commuter line between Hamilton and Missoula. It's on the mind of some members of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and the agreement with MRL doesn't eliminate the future possibility.

But for now, the line gets little use, other than to occasional store freight cars. With no pressing need, the railroad offered to place a “tracks out of service” status on the line in order to remove several railroad crossings.

“To say we're taking these tracks out of service is not a permanent thing,” Dickson said. “It's mostly for the convenience of their maintenance and ours and for the smooth travel of the public. We can do this work since they don't have any foreseeable need.”

Over the summer, the county was working with MRL on a utility crossing permit for the Lolo Water and Sewer District when the railroad offered to change the status of several crossings. MRL said it had no immediate demand for service to the Bitterroot Valley and removing the crossings would prove mutually beneficial.

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority first sought to explore the issue deeper and the role the Bitterroot line may or may not play in the future. For now, at least, there is no need for the line and the county on Tuesday agreed to the railroad's offer.

“There is a stipulation in there that if service ever gets restored to the Bitterroot Valley, that MRL will reinstall the crossings at their expense,” said Dickson. “We can at least get the agreements done to free us up to do the work.”