Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge


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The ongoing bridge project takes us south again, to the often-overlooked Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge. Rail-only bridges are pretty much always overlooked, since nobody uses them except the railroad itself. On top of that, this particular bridge is in an out-of-the-way location, is fairly unremarkable-looking, and is very lightly used even by the railroad. That all adds up to "destined for obscurity" -- although it does have its own Structurae page, which I guess is something.

If you took a local survey and asked people if they'd ever heard of this bridge being here, I'd guess the answers would be split between "No" and "Who cares?". And really, why would you care? You can't drive over it, you can't legally walk or bike over it, and the few trains that use it don't carry passengers. In my case, I'm kind of running low on bridges, and I figured I'd go check it out for the sake of completeness, along with a measure of idle curiosity.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

Since I didn't walk over the bridge, I don't really have an adventure story to tell this time. I just drove to Rivervilla Park, at the foot of the bridge on the east bank, took a few photos, and went on my merry way. So pretty much what I've got to offer this time are the photos, plus whatever info about the bridge I was able to dredge up on the interwebs. As a result, this post is somewhat overreliant on bullet-point lists full of links, as you'll see shortly. Literature snobs tend to sneer at bullet-point lists, so this post is unlikely to win any awards for its eloquent and skillful use of the English language -- assuming those awards still even exist -- but that's just how the post wrote itself.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

This bridge is the only bridge over the Willamette between Sellwood and Oregon City, which is a pretty substantial gap, so it seems (to me) like kind of a waste that it's only used by a few freight trains now and then. I'm not the only person who thinks so, as I've seen occasional discussion about using it for commuter rail, streetcars, and/or pedestrians/bike access, but as of right now there aren't any firm plans for any of those things. One idea is to run commuter rail across it, similar to the upcoming Beaverton-to-Wilsonville WES line. A line like that could run south from downtown Portland all the way out to McMinnville, possibly as a snooty, upscale "wine train", like the one down in Napa Valley (which some locals have dubbed the "swine train"). This line could even be extended and run to Spirit Mountain, which would make it a total geezer magnet. Every last old guy in the country would insist on making a pilgrimage here, to come ride the casino train. I'm not sure that would be a good idea, but it sounds like a very lucrative idea. Oh, and it'd serve actual commuters too, apparently.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

Other ideas include adding overhead wires and turning it into a streetcar bridge, or removing the tracks and making it bike/ped only, or cantilevering an additional bike/ped walkway off one side of the bridge, similar to what was done with the lower deck of the Steel Bridge a few years ago. I kind of prefer the last idea, if it can be done safely. Rail traffic could continue, while also allowing me to walk over the thing and take some photos without dying, which is the main thing of course.

Some people (who I guess aren't down with our fair city's anti-car policy) think there ought to be a vehicular bridge here. It's not a terrible idea, but after looking at the current bridge it's pretty clear to me that you couldn't modify it to carry cars. It's just too narrow for that. You'd have to build from scratch, and maybe right here is the best place for that, and maybe it isn't. Either way, you'll need to get in line behind all the other expensive bridge proposals currently on the table. So don't expect to see this any time soon.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

A few semi-recent examples of the on-and-off discussion and handwringing about the bridge:
  • The Lake Oswego Trails Master Plan envisions a "Willamette Crossing Trail" someday, with an estimated cost of about $5,670,000, in 2003 dollars.
  • This City of Milwaukie Transportation System Plan Update mentions in in passing, while brainstorming about future commuter rail options.
  • A doc from Metro's Lake Oswego to Portland Transit and Trail Study mentions the bridge as an "issue", as in, what to do about the bridge if the westside Portland-to-Lake Oswego rail line is turned into a trail.
  • The City of Beaverton mentions the bridge a 2006 info packet for city council members, which mentions the possibility of using some Metro bond money to renovate the bridge.
  • A thread at Portland Transport discusses the streetcar option, because they always love the streetcar option over on Portland Transport. One commenter explains why streetcars and freight trains can't coexist on the same tracks.
  • A RailroadForums thread about the proposed eastside streetcar and Milwaukie MAX projects mentions the L.O. bridge briefly, as in, why are we building all this other new stuff when this existing bridge is practically sitting idle?
  • A BikePortland thread about the Portland-to-Lake Oswego rail line gets a couple of comments about the bridge. One poster has ridden the bridge a few times and explains what a hassle it is in its current form.
  • A commuter rail page on Trainweb calls it "the Forgotten Bridge", which sounds about right.
  • In the August '08 meeting minutes of Oak Lodge Community Council, the bridge is once again described as the "forgotten bridge", but also as a "major asset". Figuring out what to do with this major asset is the hard part, it seems.
  • An Oregonian story from January 15, 2004 says "Walkway Over Willamette Gains Favor". Favor, that is, with everyone except the railroad. They think it's way too dangerous, describing it as a "very scary bridge". Even if people behave themselves and stay off the tracks, they say, there's a danger people will be hit by stuff falling off the train -- lumber, sheet metal, stuff like that. They do like the idea of commuter rail, though, so that's something. They lease the bridge, I think from Union Pacific, and their lease runs through 2015. So maybe something will happen after that. This article generated a couple of letters to the editor.
  • A PSU student project, "Milwaukie to Lake Oswego Willamette River Pedestrian Bridge", looked at the feasibility of adding a walkway to the bridge, and they even have a design mockup. The railroad wasn't interested in talking to them, though.
  • In related news, the Pacific & Western Railroad (which operates the bridge and leases it from Union Pacific) is pushing a new proposal for a Hillsboro-to-Forest Grove commuter line. It's not hard to see why they like commuter rail: When the Beaverton-Wilsonville line gets going, P&W will be contracted to operate it on TriMet's behalf. They also received a bunch of needed capital improvements to the line, paid for with taxpayer cash, so their freight business benefits too. This is either cronyism or a win-win situation, I guess, depending on how you feel about commuter rail.
  • And the handwringing about safety along the WES line has already begun.
  • The bridge is also mentioned in an Aug. 5, 1996 Oregonian article, "Metro Revives 1994 Study On Willamette River Crossings". This is from the early stages of our endless "What to do about the Sellwood Bridge" handwringing, when there were options on the table besides just replacing the Sellwood with a new bridge nearby. In passing, it mentions people have been crossing the railroad bridge for years, despite the lack of a nice, public-friendly walkway.
  • A blog post and a couple of forum threads discuss cyclists using the bridge.
  • A 2004 post on foldedspace discusses "The Future of Oak Grove". One commenter claims to have seen people walking across the bridge.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

If you look closely at the bridge, you can see there's a narrow walkway, more of a catwalk really, on the north/downstream side of the bridge. I thought about taking it, but I was dissuaded by what I thought were a few good reasons.

  1. I couldn't get onto the bridge from where I was. I think you have to go find the end of the trestle, and I'm not sure where that is.
  2. It doesn't look very safe. It's pretty spartan, and looks like it was designed for the exclusive use of maintenance people who know exactly what they're doing, and are paid very well to do it. Not much in the way of solid handrails up there, so I have a hunch my rare, occasional fear of heights might kick in, especially if it's windy.
  3. Nonzero chance that a train might come while I'm up there. I realize it doesn't get a lot of use -- I've seen the figure of about 2 trains a day bandied around -- but I also know what my luck is like. The walkway's pretty close to the tracks, and trains are substantially wider than their tracks, so I'm not sure how much space that leaves you. The maintenance people this was designed for are bound to have a schedule and know when the next train's due. Me, not so much.
  4. Nonzero chance of being arrested or fined for trespassing. The bridge is railroad property, and railroads aren't too keen on random members of the general public wandering around on their property, if they catch you. It turns out that, thanks to robber-baron-era laws governing railroads, a railroad doesn't just have security guards, it can actually have own Railroad police force. Seriously. Railroad police can operate with the same legal authority as local or state police, they can make arrests, they can even shoot people if the need arises. As is usual with all things railroad-related, your state and local authorities have no jurisdiction or regulatory authority over railroad police. They answer only to Uncle Sam and the shareholders. So it's not too surprising that the Union Pacific Police Dept. had a turn as Willamette Week's Rogue of the Week a couple of years ago. I'll grant that they have legitimate concerns about trespassers, and a real need to keep people off their tracks and out of their equipment. Since it's, you know, dangerous and all. Also, there was a
    pipe bomb incident at the bridge back in 1993, so there's wannabe-evildoers to worry about too, I guess.
I suppose I could just call up the railroad and ask for permission, if I really wanted to walk across the thing that badly. I considered doing that before I actually got a look at the bridge, and now I'm not sure I really want to. I won't rule out that I might try it at some point, although I kind of suspect they'd say no. Maybe if I spun it as "I want to explain to the public why it's so dangerous", with lots of photos illustrating the point. I dunno. I've come to realize that I'm more easily dissuaded than most people by the threat of getting an expensive ticket (or worse), even when the actual likelihood of it happening is probably quite low, as it is with this bridge. I'm not usually big on blaming things on parents, much less grandparents, but in this case I really think it's my maternal grandmother's fault. Where some people use "the bogeyman" to scare kids into behaving, she used "the policeman", so as a small child I got a lot of "you be good, now, or the policeman will get you". I'm not kidding. The evil terminator in Terminator 2 spent most of the movie in the form of a cop, and that's a pretty good approximation of what I thought "the policeman" was like when I was a kid. I still don't think I've entirely gotten over that. You walk over the bridge, you might get speared through the eye with CG liquid metal or something. I've never figured out where Grandma picked up this attitude. Was it just a generic Scots-Irish thing? Or did she have a more exciting youth than she led us all to believe? We may never know for sure. And maybe that's for the best.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

As you might expect, the bridge shows up on various railfan websites, where we learn (among other things) that the long, curving trestle on the east bank is called the "Menefee Trestle", after a lumber company that used to be next to the tracks a bit further north. The Brooklyn railyard in SE Portland is home to the historic SP 4449 locomotive, which seems to use the bridge regularly when they take it out for a spin. For example:

  • Photos from a rail excursion from Albany to the Brooklyn Yard in Portland, including one from on the trestle.

  • A thread about a different excursion on the same train, including a great photo of it crossing the bridge.
  • Another photo, same train again, crossing the bridge going the other way.
  • Another page about the SP 4449, with a few more photos of the train on the bridge.

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

Other assorted photos of the bridge:

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge

1 comment :

Keean Morishita said...

This bridge is walked across by pedestrians on a regular basis. In the middle of the two trestles, where the middle concrete support pillar meets the bridge, is a small room you can get into. It's a cool view for sure. Spent numerous nights and 4th of July up there. When A train coms, you can feel/hear it nearing. Walking to the Lake Oswego side of the bridge is far far closer than backtracking all the way back to the Milwaukie side. You really shouldnt be so scared of the bridge