Boise’s Deadly Railroad Bridge
Posted on October 30, 2017
It was a beautiful afternoon for exploring the grounds of Boise’s depot. People were strolling through Platt Gardens, chatting on the hillside next to the railroad tracks.
A young mother, seeing that her son was getting bored, decided to take him for a walk. She’d stopped to talk to some people when the boy pulled away and ran to the railroad trestle bridge over Capitol Boulevard..
“Oh, my God!” she said, running after him as he climbed the stairs to one of its narrow walkways.
The boy was fast, but the mother was faster. She caught him and scooped him up just as he was venturing out onto the walkway.
“You can’t go out there!” she said, close to panic. “You could fall onto those cars down there!”
She was right. He could have fallen very easily.
This is the trestle bridge we’ve all driven under hundred of times, the one at the top of the hill by the depot, where Capitol Boulevard meets Vista Avenue. You drive under it in a blink, not giving a moment’s thought to the possibility that it could be dangerous. It’s roughly 20 to 30 feet above multiple lanes of traffic. A fall from it would kill or seriously injure you, even if you were lucky enough not to get hit by a car.
The bridge has walkways on either side of its railroad track, elevated several feet above the level of the track. Railings line the walkways, but their vertical bars are at least four feet apart, with horizontal bars some two feet above the walking surface. While this may be adequate protection for grownups, how many little kids do you know who can’t get through a two- by four-foot space? There were no gates blocking access to the stairs or the walkways. No warning signs or no-trespassing signs.
That was last spring. As a concerned citizen, I sent an email to Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s office asking whether someone from the city or the railroad could do something to make the walkways safer. My email was forwarded to Boise Valley Railroad, which operates that stretch of tracks. (In its defense, the trestle pre-dated BVRR’s existence by many years.) Its response was that no-trespassing signs should have been posted there and that the railroad would look into the adequacy of the railings.
Fast forward six months. I hadn’t noticed any changes while driving by, so last week I stopped to have a look.
To its credit, the railroad had prominently posted signs by the steps:
“Keep off of Bridge. No Trespassing. No recreational vehicles. All trespassers will be prosecuted.”
A good start. But with due respect, it seems as if the signs are as much about protecting the railroad’s interests as they are about protecting the public. Small children – those who most easily could fall from the walkways – can’t read the signs. There are no “danger” signs, no gates to prevent access.
Am I overreacting to think this is an accident waiting to happen?
Not necessarily. While I was checking out the signs, a man rode over the bridge on a bicycle. He smiled and said hello as he passed, continued for a short distance, then turned around and came back.
“Are you Tim Woodward?” he asked.
“Good. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
His name was Randy Strong, and he wanted to talk to me about part of an old sign he’d found, with a faded hamburger and the words “red devil” printed on it. Because I grew up in Boise, he thought I might know the name of the restaurant it identified. (I don’t, but if you do please email me at the address below so I can put his mind at ease.) Then the conversation turned to the walkways.
“It’s good that they put those signs up,” he said. “But it would still be easy for someone to walk out there. It’s a really dangerous situation.”
So I’m not the only one.
Readers may be wondering why I became so interested in this. A fair question.
The little boy on the trestle? He’s my three-year-old great grandson. We were there to see Union Pacific’s steam locomotive 844, “the Living Legend.” There was a big crowd at the depot that day. Lots of people, lots of kids.
Six months later, there still are no physical barriers to keep a child from running onto one of the walkways.
So I called BVRR’s Nampa office to ask what, if anything, was being done about that. My call was referred to Tracie Van Becelaere, communications director for Kansas-based Watco Transportation Services, which owns the railroad.
“It’s a very odd setup there,” she said, referring to the trestle’s being over Capitol Boulevard. “It’s right over a highway.”
Technically, it isn’t. But it might as well be.
I asked her whether BVRR was, as promised, looking into railing adequacy.
“They’re doing that right now,” she said. “They’re going to put up gates to keep people off of the walkways.”
Will that take another six months?
“I’m not sure how long it will take. But it’s a very high priority for them.”
As it should be. Nobody wants to see a kid on one of those walkways.
Or, worse, lying in the middle of the street below it.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Know someone who’d make a good column subject for him? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.