BNSF Completes Construction on New Bridge Over Lake Pend Oreille

by Colter Brown

In the early 20th century, BNSF predecessor Northern Pacific Railway (NP) erected a bridge in Idaho across Lake Pend Oreille between Sagle and Sandpoint to replace an earlier bridge built in 1882. The original could no longer be used due to high flood waters and increasingly heavier train loads moving across the lake.

A Northern Pacific locomotive heads toward Sandpoint at north end of bridge. Courtesy of Bonner County Historical Society.
A Northern Pacific locomotive heads toward Sandpoint at north end of bridge. Courtesy of Bonner County Historical Society.

“The bridge was replaced because flooding was always an issue,” Will Valentine, a Bonner County historian, said. “They actually had to push cars full of rock onto the trestle to keep it from being washed away. In 1904, Northern Pacific constructed the bridge that is still there today.”

When the new bridge was completed in 1904, it boosted the local economy because of increased train traffic and demand for more commerce in the area.

The 1904 bridge is still in use today by both freight and passenger trains. In 2019 BNSF began constructing a second bridge adjacent to the existing rail bridge. The two run parallel approximately 50 feet apart.

The project is completed, and the bridge officially opened on Sunday, Nov. 20, when a BNSF train crossed the bridge for the first time. The completed bridge is 4,873 feet in length, comprised of 49 spans, 224 precast concrete girders and approximately 55,000 feet of 36-inch pipe pile.

The added bridge will reduce congestion and help move freight more efficiently. Currently, because BNSF’s mainline track merges with Montana Rail Link, there is often a bottleneck of multiple trains needing to access the single track to get across the lake. With one bridge, rail traffic can only run in one direction at a time, requiring trains to idle while waiting to cross, often blocking local roadways.

“It’s really important to recognize that our Montana and Pacific Northwest growers and our grain customers in the region were absolutely key in supporting everything that went it to getting the second bridge across Lake Pend Oreille approved,” said Jim Titsworth, General Director of Agricultural Development for BNSF.

“The doubletrack mainline really removes one of the last bottlenecks in the critical corridor between Montana and the Pacific Northwest, where all of our customers are looking for that grain,” said Titsworth.

When the two bridges are operational, trains will run in both directions, reducing driver wait times on nearby roads that cross BNSF tracks. The flow of freight and passenger trains will be improved throughout the region.

Ryan Kopera, the Sandpoint bridge project engineer, has worked for BNSF for eight years and has overseen the project since the beginning.

“This project has been in the works for several years, so it’s great to see it completed and ready to go. A lot of people put in a lot of hard work for the project to be finished on time,” Kopera said. “It is great to see trains on the bridge.”

While trains are now operating on the new bridge, the full project will not be completed until summer of 2023 as we take the opportunity to perform some maintenance work on the existing bridge. Until then, all trains will use the new bridge.

 “This project is going to improve the flow of rail traffic through North Idaho, benefitting customers and communities. We appreciate the support of those partners throughout the entire process,” Matthew Jones, BNSF executive director of public affairs, added.

Once trains are running on both bridges, it will reduce rail congestion and benefit commerce. It’s also expected that locomotive emissions will be reduced as trains will not be idling as much or powering up to resume travel.

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