Unless you’ve been living on the moon you have no doubt heard about the floods that ravaged many parts of Alberta in late June 2013. Record rainfall and melting snow pack in the mountains unleashed a torrent of water with nearly every river and stream overflowing its banks.
Many low lying sections of Calgary were flooded, ruining numerous homes and businesses. Included in those structures damaged is the CPR’s massive Bonnybrook bridge over the Bow River, which failed as a train passed over it. A weakened pier shifted or broke away, causing the centre spans to partially collapse. While the train did not fall into the river, some rail cars dangled precariously above it.
I wanted to go view the bridge and knowing there is a public pathway very near it, we decided it would be fun to bike in. We started at a point on the eastern edge of town, in an industrial area, using the Calgary to Chestemere canal pathway as our route in.
It takes us little time to travel the approximately ten kilometres to our destination, with only a flat tire to slow us down (I get a lot of flats). Before checking out the bridge we take some time to enjoy lunch, with wine of course.
From our lunch spot we have a pretty good view of the action and it’s amazing to see the bridge damaged as it is. The site is a bee hive of activity with many workers moving about, and lots of machinery, all engaged in cleaning up and fixing the mess.
This event has severed the CPR’s east/west mainline and I am sure the railway is eager to get things back to where they were. This must be costing them, well, a train load of money, both for the repairs and the lost business that likely came about as a result of this event.
This bridge has sat here for approximately one hundred years and while there are those that may say it was its age that contributed to the failure, I don’t buy that. Railways have a philosophy when it comes to their physical plant and they always overbuild and a century old bridge is nothing odd.
Even in spite of its solid construction it could not stand up to the scouring effects of the flood which as I understand it, uncut the trailing edge of the effected support pier (the upstream section of the pier looked fine). There were ongoing inspections above water but there was no way to know what was happening below. However, as long as the bridge remained true, it was a pretty safe bet it was fine. Typically, a failing pier or foundation would be instantly noticeable as parts would shift out of alignment, but that did not happen here and so there was no way to know that a failure was imminent.
At the flood’s peak, the Bow River almost reached the top deck of the bridge.
There are four tracks here, three sharing the span that collapsed, and an additional track on top a second deck on the upstream side. They all share the same piers, which are very wide and this span, built in the 1970s I believe, seemed to be intact. Machinery was using it to get back and forth across the river and it’s possible that a limited number of trains could use this remaining link.
A nearby CNR bridge appeared for the most part, unscathed. I looked down the tracks and they were arrow straight, meaning no visible shifting happened. It is of course entirely possible it sustained some damage that can not be seen by my cursory “inspection”. This one is just upstream.
The majority of the train had passed over the bridge before it failed. A number of tank cars loaded with petroleum products did not make it across and these were a big worry. It was feared they would leak or maybe tumble into the river. In the end however, they were simply emptied of their contents and later re-railed and dragged away. What could have been a catastrophe was quickly averted in a very orderly and business like manner.
This author believes the local media somewhat over dramatized the event. It could have been a huge disaster, there is not doubt about that. However, on closer inspection it was clear there was little chance of the cars falling into the river or even leaking for that matter. They remained completely upright and for the most part unscathed and the bridge while shifted, was mostly intact. Even if it the structure collapsed further, the truss sides would have likely prevented the cars from falling off – even so as a safety measure, they were anchored to other freight cars to keep them from moving. This was a potentially dangerous event, handled systemically and professionally.
In addition to the bridge, it appears some of the track leading from it suffered some damage too and various pieces of machinery were at working realigning everything. Seen directly behind the Bonnybrook bridge is the CPR’s huge Alyth yards.
We take some time to look at the river itself and it’s brown and dirty and still quite high. It’s going to take a long time for things to clear up. So sad.
A quick bike ride back, with no flats this time (knock on wood), and we’re at the car, a good day exploring behind us.
Update: July 09 2013. We returned to the bridge and were able to photograph it from a different angle, again from a public pathway. It was earlier underwater, preventing access until this day. From this direction we have a good look at the damage, although it’s still hard to see exactly what happened. Some Mammoet cranes were stationed on each end of the bridge, ready to do some heavy lifting.
To see an updated report on the bridge, go here…
Collapsed Bonnybrook train bridge – two months later.
We did another report earlier in the year which included some pictures of this bridge, and to view them please click the link below…
Silver Streak movie then and now – cop chase.
If you wish more information about this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: June and July, 2013.
Location: Calgary, AB
We revisited the site July 9th and took the following photos…