BNSF Completes Sandpoint Jct. Connector (Updated)

Written by Bruce E. Kelly, Railway Age
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On August 7, 2023, with both mains through Sandpoint now in service, a westbound intermodal train crosses Bridge 3.9B, which opened last November, while an eastbound manifest waits on recently-renovated Bridge 3.9A before crossing over to the other main and continuing toward Whitefish, Mont. All photos: Bruce E. Kelly

SANDPOINT, Idaho – A four-year, multi-faceted project to widen a single-track chokepoint on BNSF’s Northern Corridor at Sandpoint, Idaho, is now complete, following the cutover of new track during a 16-hour work window on Aug. 6, 2023. What used to be two miles of single-track main line involving a bridge nearly a mile long over Lake Pend Oreille is now two main tracks with parallel bridges, plus an improved connection where BNSF’s Kootenai River Subdivision links up with Montana Rail Link. map enhanced by the author. Note that this diagram shows the now-completed second main track on the bridge as “under construction.”
The new look of Sandpoint Jct. on Aug. 6, 2023, while a Freightliner work truck pulls through with ballast cars. MRL’s main line and siding (left) have barely changed, but BNSF’s Kootenai River Sub out of Montana (right) now continues west on new track past the depot to a new dual crossover less than a mile away. The previous signal bridge spanning all three tracks has been replaced with this cantilever signal.
Across Lake Pend Oreille from Sandpoint on Aug. 6, 2023, men and machines reconfigure the track at what used to be East Algoma, the eastern terminus of more than 50 miles of dual main line. Now these two tracks remain separate and lead directly onto the two bridges spanning the lake.

The first major step in BNSF’s Sandpoint Junction Connector project was construction of a second bridge, 4,873 feet long, across Lake Pend Oreille, entering service in November 2022. Two smaller bridges were built within the city of Sandpoint but did not enter service until the Aug. 6, 2023, track cutover. After trains began using the new Lake Pend Oreille bridge late last year, much of 2023 was spent replacing or reinforcing spans and piers on the middle portion of the old bridge, which dates to 1904. 

Workers on Aug. 6, 2023, tie in the new main track with the existing Kootenai River Sub at Sandpoint Jct., Idaho.

In 1972, BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern consolidated the traffic from multiple routes between the Pacific Northwest and the central and eastern U.S. onto a single line between Spokane, Wash., and Sandpoint. Increases in grain, intermodal, export coal and other traffic during the 1980s and ’90s began to overwhelm BN’s mostly single-track Spokane-Sandpoint main line, which some nicknamed “The Funnel.”

Chicago-bound intermodal approached Sandpoint Jct., Idaho, on single track in July 2018. It would take the track at right to head north to Bonners Ferry then east into Montana.  Two tracks at left were a main and siding leading to MRL.
A Portland-bound train off MRL passed the Sandpoint depot in October 2018. The asphalt platform has since been removed, and the shed housing a wheelchair lift for Amtrak passengers was relocated to accommodate a second main track.
With BNSF’s second main now laid between the existing main and the Sandpoint depot, the storage shed for a wheelchair lift was moved and a new elevated Amtrak platform has been erected.

In 1997, two years after BN merged with Santa Fe Railway, the first phase of doubletracking The Funnel began, with 38.5 miles of second main track laid. Between 2017 and 2019, BNSF added another 14.5 miles of second main. Now, with the completion of the second main from East Algoma to Sandpoint Jct., all that remains to fully doubletrack the 68-mile Spokane-Sandpoint corridor is a 4-mile segment between Irvin and Otis Orchards, Wash. BNSF has already begun grade work and bridge construction at the Spokane River to accommodate a second track, which the company says will take “approximately two more years” to complete.

“The completion of this bridge is a big win for our customers and the community, especially before the start of the fall harvest season,” said BNSF Vice President of Engineering John Cech, Railway Track & Structures 2022 Engineer of the Year. “This milestone is thanks to many team members spanning across multiple departments who collaborated to help improve the consistency of our service. This bridge will be critical moving forward to address our long-term growth and will allow us to meet customer expectations for the next century or more.”

Chicago-bound intermodal passed through Sandpoint Jct., Idaho, in July 2018. It would take the track at right to head north to Bonners Ferry then east into Montana. The two tracks at left were a main and siding leading to MRL. All three tracks converged here into one before crossing Lake Pend Oreille on the 1904 Northern Pacific bridge.
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