Idaho rockslides have local repercussions

Blockages force BNSF, Amtrak changes, delays

By Craig Brown, Columbian Metro Editor



Two large rock slides near the Idaho-Montana border are causing repercussions on the BNSF rail system as far away as Vancouver.

The slides also forced delay of Amtrak’s Empire Builder service, which provides daily passenger trains between Portland/Vancouver and Seattle to Chicago.

The first slide occurred about 1 p.m. Sunday and was detected by a signal system on a nearby BNSF train, said Gus Melonas, a railway spokesman. The slide covered the railroad’s single-track main line, called the Highline Route, with boulders, earth and trees to a depth of 30 feet in an area 30 feet wide.

The slide was at the bottom of a 130-foot cliff along the Kootenai River, about 18 miles east of Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

With the main line blocked, traffic started to back up. In addition to Amtrak, about 30 freight trains a day use the line, which connects the Pacific Northwest with Chicago and points east. Some of the trains originate in Vancouver, Melonas said.

As the main line was cleared, a second slide occurred at 6:30 a.m. Monday in the same general area. That slide was about 20 feet long and 20 feet deep.

A combined crew of 20 and equipment from Libby, Mont., and Troy, Idaho, attacked the slide and hoped to have the line reopened late Monday or early Tuesday.

Some trains were able to be rerouted on Montana Rail Link tracks.

For BNSF, the slide was just the latest in what has been two seasons of rock slides, snow drifts and other nature-caused track problems. “This has been the most challenging year I’ve seen in my 35 years in the railroad,” Melonas said.