BNSF Plans New Rail Bridge over Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho

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The train bridge over Lake Pend Oreille, near Sandpoint, stretches almost a mile and was built in 1905. - CHRIS BESSLER, SANDPOINTONLINE.COM
  • Chris Bessler, sandpointonline.com
  • The train bridge over Lake Pend Oreille, near Sandpoint, stretches almost a mile and was built in 1905.

They call it "the funnel," and looking at a map of rail lines in the Western United States it's clear why. Tracks from the Midwest fan out and converge on a dense choke point located in the Idaho Panhandle—that's where westbound Union Pacific, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and Montana Rail Link trains converge before hitting a central rail yard in Spokane, Wash.

But before they reach Spokane, those trains have to pass over a 4,769-foot-long bridge across Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho's largest lake. And it's slow going. Completed in 1905 and built with a steel deck and concrete pilings, the bridge is narrow—only a single track—and represents one of the most severe capacity constraints for BNSF on its northern line from the Great Lakes to the Washington Coast.

The rail company, owned by Warren Buffett, is looking to change that, with a plan to build a second bridge adjacent to the existing span.

According to Railway Age, the company is in the preliminary engineering design phase, but confirmed it would construct a bridge 4,800 feet long, made of concrete spans and steel pilings. Track centers on the bridges would be about 50 feet apart. 

BNSF's northern rail corridor hits a choke point in the Idaho Panhandle called "the funnel." - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • BNSF's northern rail corridor hits a choke point in the Idaho Panhandle called "the funnel."

Approximately 50 trains, and as many as 70, everyday chug over the existing bridge, which replaced a wooden trestle put up by the Northern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s. They carry everything from agricultural products and fuel, to cars and chemicals. Recently, controversy has crept up over BNSF's plan to ship coal through the area on its way to massive, proposed shipping terminals on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Though the export terminals—which would handle coal bound for China—are still undergoing review amid intense opposition in coastal communities as well as towns along the line including Sandpoint, estimates suggest that rail traffic would increase by about 40 trains per day should the coal shipments become a reality.

Rail congestion in Bonner County, where the bridge is located, is already a major problem, with long wait times for commuters and emergency vehicles at many of the 160 rail crossings in the county.

According to a BNSF spokesman, quoted by Railway Age, the company must first undergo permitting, but hopes to have its secondary bridge completed by 2018.

Cost estimates are not yet available, and a call to BNSF went unanswered.