Credit: Illustration by Melissa McFarlin

Montana Free Press is taking an out-of-office holiday break Dec. 26-30. Instead of new stories, we’ll be publishing MTFP editors’ and reporters’ looks back at their most impactful, interesting, challenging, and just plain favorite stories of the past year. Today is Justin Franz’s turn.


I’ve been fascinated with railroads ever since I was a child, so I’m always excited to be able to write about them professionally, especially for a wide audience. But in early January 2022, I had no idea just how much I would be writing about railroads for Montana Free Press. 

A BNSF Railway employee is seen in the Essex rail yard in January 2022. Credit: Justin Franz

That month, news dropped that Montana Rail Link, the Missoula-based railroad owned by billionaire industrialist Dennis Washington, would be terminating the long-term lease of its tracks through southern Montana and returning them to owner BNSF Railway. Nearly a year later, that transaction continues to work its way through government approvals. Then, in February, Amtrak took delivery of its first new long-distance passenger locomotives in a generation and assigned them to the Empire Builder, which connects Chicago and Seattle by way of the Hi-Line and Flathead Valley. The new locomotives are expected to reduce emissions by 95%. 

Brady Wassam, 30, of Columbia Falls, photographed on May 2, 2022. Wassam worked for BNSF Railway as a locomotive engineer for eight years but left in March after the railroad instituted a new attendance policy. Credit: Justin Franz

But the biggest news would come from Montana’s largest railroad operator, BNSF, which was beset with service issues and labor challenges throughout the year. In early 2022, the railroad instituted a new attendance policy called “Hi-Viz” that assigned points to employees when they were not available to work. Collect 30 points and get terminated. The railroad said the policy was necessary to keep the nation’s supply chain moving. But railroaders and union officials called it a “draconian” consequence of major cuts to the freight rail workforce (which has been reduced by 29% in the last six years). 

Shortly after the story came out, BNSF announced it was changing its policy. But that was just the beginning of BNSF’s challenges in 2022. In September, it and five other major railroads faced the prospect of a nationwide strike. Again, attendance policies and sick leave were at the center of the debate. With just hours to go before a strike, the White House brokered a deal to prevent it. But the unions still weren’t happy with the contract and were preparing to strike right before the holidays. This time, Congress prevented a work stoppage by using the Railway Labor Act of 1926 for the first time in three decades. 

Water covers both lanes of U.S. Highway 2 in Bad Rock Canyon east of Columbia Falls. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

But I didn’t spend all my time writing about the rails. There were also border blockades, plow truck driver shortages, psychedelics, weed, wild flooding and wildfires. Some of my favorite stories of the year were about my own community for MTFP Local. In fact, I didn’t have to go far to report a story about how the housing shortage was impacting my local brewery or how “town bears” were creating a ruckus around Columbia Falls (that article’s photo was taken along the trail I run on most days — I was a little more careful after reporting that story). 

A sign in a Columbia Falls neighborhood warns walkers to be on the lookout for bears. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

One of the reasons I got into journalism is that it’s different every day, and writing for Montana Free Press during 2022 proved that once again. From how freight moves across the nation to how bears move through my own neighborhood, there was always something news to report. 

Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.