Why a second main track at Sandpoint Amtrak station won’t happen – Sandpoint Train Station (Sandpoint Train Depot)
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Why a second main track at Sandpoint Amtrak station won’t happen

I recently had an in-depth discussion with a good friend about the Sandpoint Train Depot and the likelihood that a second main track will ever go in next to the current BNSF main line. After our conversation I received a fantastic summary detailing many of the points that we discussed and I am posting it here in hopes of promoting further discussion about this topic. There is a lot of detail here, so be sure to click on the maps if you are having trouble visualizing the routes that are mentioned. Enjoy…

Before 1970, there were three distinct railroads through Sandpoint. (All railroads operated as east and west, but through Sandpoint, they were mostly in a north-or east and south-or west alignment).  The Great Northern (GN) line skirted the town to the west; the Spokane International (SI), which is now Union Pacific (SI) went through the middle of town, and the Northern Pacific (NP) went along the lake.

The GN and NP were both railroads operating between St. Paul/Minneapolis and the Pacific Northwest.  When they merged in 1970 to form Burlington Northern (BN, now BNSF), the focus was to create one main line for traffic off the two railroads using the best of each. Between Casselton, North Dakota (just west of Fargo) and Seattle, the GN line was the chosen routing, except between Sandpoint and Spokane where the NP would be used.  Therefore, connections had to be built at Sandpoint and Spokane to create a fluid main line route.

Sandpoint Diamond where UP and BNSF cross

At Sandpoint, the connection was built from the GN line¬†from just west of the airport (at a new siding called Boyer) east-southeast over Sand Creek to intersect the NP route just north of the site of the current Amtrak station.¬† This is the main BNSF route today, and the route used by Amtrak’s Empire Builder. On the “new” connection, the route crosses the UP route at grade:

http://www.wikimapia.org/#lat=48.2869624&lon=-116.5537834&z=15&l=0&m=b

The GN route west from Sandpoint toward Spokane was eventually abandoned between Newport and Dean. BNSF retains ownership between Sandpoint and Dover, but Dover to Newport was sold to the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad.

As traffic on the UP increased, the desire was to move these trains out of downtown Sandpoint, so a connection was constructed from the UP just south of the where UP and BN crossed (per link above) west to meet the ex-GN main line on the west side of Sandpoint.  UP trains would use this route instead of going through downtown Sandpoint, and then would use the ex-GN line to Dover, where a new connection was built between the ex-GN route and the UP route:

http://www.wikimapia.org/#lat=48.2519981&lon=-116.6212893&z=14&l=0&m=b

This is the current operation today, and UP trains actually operate on BNSF between Sandpoint and Dover.

With regard to the possibility of BNSF wanting to construct a second main track past the existing Amtrak station site, this can be questioned on several fronts:

  • Will BNSF construct new bridges over Lake Pend Oreille, Bridge Street, and Sand Creek?
  • Would they expect any negative feedback from environmentalists or the public in general?

The main focus should be that the likelihood of constructing a second track over Lake Pend Oreille would be minimal, given the length of the bridge, which is just less than a mile long. This would be very expensive.

An often-touted and less expensive option would be to use the UP routing west from Sandpoint. Currently for about 15 miles from southwest of Spokane through downtown, UP operates on BNSF track. The UP line more or less parallels the BNSF route from Spokane to Bonners Ferry.  (The BNSF route at Bonners Ferry, the route of the Amtrak Empire Builder, continues east into Montana along US 2, whereas the UP route goes to the border to interchange with Canadian Pacific at Eastport, Idaho/Kingsgate, British Columbia.)

UP has long sought trackage rights on BN and later BNSF in this area. Between Spokane and Bonners Ferry, the UP and BNSF routes cross three times, BNSF over UP just south of Athol, at grade in Sandpoint, and BNSF over UP near the community of Deep Creek, west of Bonners Ferry.  Building connections between the two would be exceptionally easy (and non-evasive) at Athol and Bonners Ferry where the two railroads are parallel, or existing connections could be used as in the case of Dover and Spokane.

If BNSF wanted to increase capacity through Sandpoint, the least expensive option would be to simply use their ex-GN main line through the west edge of Sandpoint to Dover, and then the UP route to Athol, where trains could then access the ex-NP route to Spokane. In exchange for letting BNSF do this, UP would probably want to have their trains use BNSF on some or all of the segments between Spokane and Bonners Ferry, but this is something they’ve wanted all along.

There are benefits for both railroads in doing this.¬† For UP, they would gain a railroad with signals, power switches, and more frequent sidings (or if track was paired, probably a double-track operation).¬† Now, the UP route is “dark” which means no signaling, and hand-operated switches.¬† For BNSF, the obvious advantage is not building another bridge. I couldn’t find a length of the UP bridge over the Pend Oreille River at Dover, but it is significantly shorter than the BNSF bridge at Sandpoint:

(These map links are with the same magnification)

Sandpoint

http://www.wikimapia.org/#lat=48.2621699&lon=-116.5330124&z=13&l=0&m=b

Dover

http://www.wikimapia.org/#lat=48.2529125&lon=-116.6615868&z=13&l=0&m=b

It appears that the UP bridge near Dover is about 1/3 the length, but that’s really not the point; the point is that the UP line could be upgraded to handle the additional BNSF trains at a fraction of the cost.

Therefore, suggestion that someday BNSF will need to construct another track past the current Sandpoint Amtrak station appears to be exceptionally unlikely.

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Posted in Amtrak, BNSF.

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