DRANO LAKE — Eighteen days after being transferred to a barge and departing Vancouver, the newest bridge on the BNSF Railway’s Columbia River Gorge line is now installed in its new home, carrying trains across the entrance channel where Drano Lake connects to the river.
The new Drano Lake Bridge (officially called Bridge 66.4) is a replacement for a 113-year-old truss bridge that dates back to the original construction of the BNSF line and had outlived its design life.
The bridge was built in an industrial yard in Vancouver’s Columbia Business Center earlier this year and was visible from the nearby public boat launch ramp as the truss structure gradually took shape over a period of months.
The $15 million project is the latest in a series of bridge replacement projects that BNSF has undertaken for the Gorge line in recent years, including a new bridge last year in Home Valley, about seven miles west of Drano Lake, and another in 2017 at the Washougal River in Camas.
The Home Valley and Drano Lake bridges stand out because of their unusual construction history; both were built remotely and floated into place. Most rail bridges are built on-site, retired BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas told the Columbian in April, but the geographic constraints of the two Columbia River sites made that impossible.
Three weeks ago, crews carefully maneuvered the 360-foot-long, 2.7-million-pound steel structure onto an equally long barge in the Columbia River in an all-night operation. A few days later, the barge departed Vancouver and traveled up the Columbia River to the Drano Lake site, where crews spent the next several weeks preparing the bridge for the installation.
The bridge was first transferred to a pair of temporary support pillars in the Columbia River, according to BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace, and then the original transfer barge moved back underneath at an angle perpendicular to the bridge, allowing crews to build a quartet of steel-and-wood supports in the center of the barge to lift the bridge back up.
The rail line officially shut down at about 3 a.m. Sunday morning, and crews immediately got to work detaching the smaller old truss and transferring it to a separate barge in the Columbia River. Once it was out of the way, the other barge pulled forward into the channel, carrying the new truss into place and lowering it down onto a pair of pre-built supports on either side of the channel.
The swap-out part of the process took about eight hours, Wallace said. After that, crews turned their attention to building a pair of 40-foot approach spans on either side of the bridge to connect its pre-installed railroad track to the main line on either side.
The track across the bridge was installed in pre-built panels, Wallace said, then surrounded by ballast rock. That work was wrapping up by late Monday morning, as crews drove track maintenance equipment back and forth across the bridge to adjust the ballast and make sure the rails were aligned correctly. The overall process involved about 50 construction workers, Wallace said.
The bridge attracted a small crowd of onlookers when it was launched in Vancouver, and it had a similar audience during the installation, albeit coincidentally — Drano Lake is a popular fishing spot, and dozens of boats trawled their way around Drano Lake Monday morning.
The installation process was scheduled to go from start to finish in only 36 hours, and the work crews met that deadline almost down to the minute — a photo from BNSF shows the first freight train crossing the new bridge at 2:57 p.m.