Major bridge, tunnel projects underway on BNSF in the Pacific Northwest

RELATED TOPICS: BNSF | INFRASTRUCTURE | WEST
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SEATTLE — BNSF Railway is starting work on a number of major bridge and tunnel projects in Washington, Idaho, and Montana that promise to maintain and even increase freight capacity in the Pacific Northwest.

In Seattle, BNSF is working with the U.S. Coast Guard to determine how it will replace a century-old bridge across Salmon Bay, about a quarter mile west of the Ballard Locks. Spokesperson Courtney Wallace tells Trains that the current draw bridge was built in 1913 and recent inspections have revealed that major components of it, including the counterweight truss and the trunnion bearings, are wearing out.

In 1948, the very same bridge was stuck in the "up" position for six months when the steel counterweight truss broke. BNSF predecessor Great Northern was forced to use an alternative route around Salmon Bay, a route that Wallace says no longer exists.

“BNSF has invested millions of dollars to maintain and upgrade the bridge over the years to extend its operational life,” Wallace says. “But now, after more than 100 years of service, a new bridge is the best strategy to ensure continuing rail use of the crossing and vessel transit through the canal.”

This month, the U.S. Coast Guard has been gathering comment from the maritime community to establish horizontal and vertical navigation requirements for the new bridge.

“Mariners and maritime stakeholders need to consider current and future prospective vessel navigation clearance requirements. Comments are needed to determine vessel’s vertical air-gap requirements, which is the height of the vessel from waterline to the top of all structural and non-lowerable vessel appurtenances that are essential to navigation,” Coast Guard officials said in a press release earlier this month.

Comments are being accepted until Oct. 31.

Further east, near Sandpoint, Idaho, BNSF is continuing to seek approval from federal regulators to build a second bridge across Lake Pend Oreille.

A second bridge over the lake has long been on the books. The current bridge over Lake Pend Oreille was built for the Northern Pacific in 1905 and was closed twice in 2016 for emergency repairs. In 2017, BNSF began designing the new bridge that railroad officials hope will hope alleviate congestion. Located on BNSF’s Kootenai Subdivision, Sandpoint is where BNSF’s transcontinental line meets Montana Rail Link’s route through southern Montana.

In June, BNSF got the green light to build the second bridge from Idaho Department of Lands however it still needs approval from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Officials have previously said they hope to get the final go ahead from the feds within a year so that they can begin construction soon after.

Another major project currently underway on BNSF are upgrades at Flathead Tunnel, 28 miles west of Whitefish, Mont. Spokesperson Ross Lane tells Trains that the railroad has been working on installing a second backup generator at the tunnel to operate the ventilation fans in the event of a power outage. About 50 trains a day use the 7-mile long tunnel, including Amtrak’s Empire Builder. Since the tunnel’s opening in 1970, the railroad has used a ventilation system to clear locomotive exhaust and it can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to clear the air. BNSF is installing at 2,000-kilowatt generator at the tunnel that will maintain the normal level of power regardless of outages.

BNSF is also designing a more modern air monitoring system that will be able to more accurately detect when the air is safe for trains to pass through. Lane says this new system will likely be installed and tested sometime in 2019.
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