Mayor asks inspection of Howard rail tunnel

O'Malley's request follows a three-car derailment

February 25, 2005|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley called on the federal government yesterday to conduct a new emergency inspection of the Howard Street Tunnel - site of a large derailment and fire in 2001 - after three cars of a CSX Transportation train left the tracks Wednesday night.

The mayor's call came as CSX and the Federal Railroad Administration said preliminary indications are pointing to mechanical failure - and not the condition of the tracks - as the cause of this week's derailment.

O'Malley said the city, which is suing CSX over the 2001 derailment, wants the railway administration and National Transportation Safety Board to examine conditions in the tunnel in the presence of city officials.

"We've been concerned about it, and now we have another derailment," O'Malley said.

In a letter to the railroad agency and the NTSB, the city requested that it be allowed to send a representative along on any inspection. At a previous inspection late last month, during which the railroad agency pronounced the tunnel's tracks safe, only federal inspectors and CSX employees were present.

Misty Skipper, a CSX spokeswoman, said the company would defer to the railroad administration's wishes if it decides to conduct an inspection.

"It's their investigation, so if they want the city to be part of their investigation it is their right to do so," Skipper said.

CSX and the city have been at odds since the last fires were put out in the nearly 110-year- old tunnel under downtown Baltimore after CSX tank cars carrying hazardous materials derailed in July 2001. The resulting chemical spill and fire tied up downtown Baltimore for days.

The CSX spokeswoman said the latest derailment involved three empty freight cars out of 114 on a train from Philadelphia to South Carolina.

Skipper said the derailed cars were cleared from the track by 10:30 a.m. yesterday. She said early indications were that the derailment was caused by a malfunctioning wheel on one car.

Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the railroad administration, agreed that "mechanical failure" was the most likely cause.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler, leading Baltimore's efforts to win damages from CSX, expressed skepticism.

"The fact you have two derailments in three years strongly supports the city's position that CSX has been and is negligent in maintaining the tunnel and track," Tyler said. "What we're going to say to the jury is `Do you honestly believe lightning strikes twice in the same place without CSX being negligent?'"

The Jan. 30 inspection was prompted by observations made by its experts Jan. 21 during an inspection of the tunnel, the city said. City officials said they had seen poor rail conditions that posed a safety threat; CSX dismissed the request as a legal ploy connected with the city's $10 million lawsuit.

The rail agency said it found no problems in the tunnel and only a minor problem with the tracks leading to it.

The city Fire Department responded to Wednesday night's derailment, and railroad officials were generally cooperative, O'Malley said. However, he complained that while CSX employees produced a manifest listing what was being carried on the train that night, they would not give fire officials a copy until yesterday morning.

Skipper said the train included some cars carrying hazardous cargo, but that they were not affected by the derailment.

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