Revamp of rail systems sought

Overhaul is suggested in tunnel fire study


A new federal study commissioned after the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel fire recommends an overhaul of the city's convoluted passenger and freight systems as the only way to fix a network deemed vital to the country's transportation grid.

Despite its strategic importance, the network is so antiquated that the lengthy report notes that one tunnel was completed eight years after the Civil War ended.

The $1 million study was conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration at the request of Congress after the train derailment that sparked an underground fire and paralyzed the region's transportation system for days.

Lawmakers wanted to study the possibility of eliminating all through freight service from the Howard Street Tunnel, owned by CSX Transportation, and replacing the 140-year-old Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel, owned by Amtrak.

The federal study reviews a number of plans, ultimately recommending several that would drastically reshape the city's transportation network with a series of newly constructed tunnels, many west of downtown.

In a letter to the rail administration, state Department of Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan called the study a good step, but said the report neglected to examine other alternatives, such as routing freight and passenger trains along Interstate 95.

Yesterday, Flanagan said the state had secured $3 million in July in federal transportation funds that it will use to study other proposals.

"We concluded that there were other alternatives that the consultants had not" looked at, Flanagan said. "We went to Congress and asked for an additional $3 million to take this study to the next level."

The study recommends separating the city's freight and passenger railway lines, which are intertwined at various points, though run by different companies. Flanagan said it would be premature to say whether that would be a good move.

An Amtrak representative did not return a telephone call for comment. A CSX representative said company officials are reviewing the report.

Of the passenger train alternatives explored, the report points to the construction of a great-circle passenger tunnel as the most promising. Its portals would be close to the B&P tunnel, west of Pennsylvania Station, and it would follow an arc northwest of Presstman Street.

The configuration would allow for faster trains, the report concludes. It would cost about $500 million.

For freight service, the report reviewed land and underwater alternatives, opting for two great-circle freight tunnels similar to the passenger tunnel.

In both cases, northeast-bound traffic would use the CSX main line and Mount Clare Branch between Halethorpe and a new connection to the CSX Hanover subdivision. In one proposal, the route would cross the Jones Falls Valley and link with the CSX "Belt Line" eastward to a junction at Bay View, costing about $900 million.

In the other proposal, the route would link with Amtrak's Northeast Corridor northwest of Pennsylvania Station downtown, using "upgraded freight" only through the station area and a renovated Union Tunnel, and then linking to Bay View. This option would cost about $1.3 billion.

The report also looked at constructing freight tunnels under Baltimore's harbor, but noted that such plans are three times as costly as land tunnels and include additional challenges, such as channel depth and limits on length.

It concluded that the most feasible possibility would be a tunnel between Marley Neck at Hawkins Point and Sparrows Point.

Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, stressed the preliminary nature of the study, saying that any plan is subject to congressional action. "There's no specific funding that's been provided for," he said, noting that any of the proposals would also require environmental impact studies.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has repeatedly raised concerns about the safety of the tunnel system, said the city welcomed the recommendations.

"We welcome any improvements along the lines that would improve safety and capacity," said Raquel Guillory. "Ever since the Howard Street fire, we've had some serious concerns about the safety of the tunnels and rail lines. But unfortunately our hands are tied. There's not much we can do about that."

She said improvements were up to the U.S. government and CSX.

But getting railroad owners and governing entities to agree on a solution could be difficult.

"This is going to have to be a consensus-building process," said Flanagan. "You've got three railroads involved. It's their railroads, not the state of Maryland's."

"At the same time as we look at these other alternatives and gauge the magnitude of the problems, the solutions are not something Maryland can do alone," he added. "Maryland has to work with states up and down the East Coast and around the country."

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