Old Freight Rail Routes Pose New Hazards

August 11, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

It's time to fess up. One of my very favorite places to watch trains is the Sisson Street Bridge, which received low marks in the safety ratings scores published in this newspaper this week.

Is it the amusement park-like shake and thrill I get when a auto or truck passes over its deck? Is it the 1890s ironwork that makes this span seem trussed up with oversized Tinkertoys? Is it the quick fix of not having to wait very long before a roaring freight train grinds up the Jones Falls Valley and shoots toward Greenmount Avenue?

But now that bridge safety has emerged as a national issue, it is time to ask some questions. The CSX must address its aged pathways through densely settled parts of Baltimore. And while we're at it, let's thank Karen Johns, who follows in a long line of South Baltimore civic activists, for bringing to light the troubles of another CSX bridge on Fort Avenue.

I live just half a block from the CSX freight mainline through Baltimore to the Northeast. As a child, I heard it called the Belt Line, and we watched trains here by the hour. This rail route is an exercise of bravura civil engineering -- daredevil double S-curves, a long tunnel under Howard Street's old department stores and theaters, and an open-cut trench along 26th Street.

The CSX route provides the city with plenty of freight railroad quirkiness. The Tropicana orange juice consumed in the Northeast comes up from Florida in orange freight cars and travels under the streets of Baltimore before arriving at a distribution plant in New Jersey.

England's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip rode the same route -- under the Baltimore asphalt -- when they paid Maryland a visit in 1957 and rode the old Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from Washington to Staten Island. Their coach also sped under the Sisson Street Bridge, which, of course, was not as old then as it is now.

Today's traffic is not so regal. CSX has numerous flatcars carrying John Deere tractors and tank cars full of chemicals. There is even a trash train, which roars through Baltimore carrying what looks like oversized gray suitcases full of compacted garbage bound for a landfill somewhere in the South. Along the way, we get to hear train whistles in the night, distant rumblings -- a lot of railroad romance.

In the summer of 2001, we learned how vulnerable Baltimore is to train accidents when a freight caught fire in the Howard Street tunnel. The trains that travel under Howard Street also go through Charles Village, Clifton Park, Orangeville and Armistead Gardens. A few weeks later, we had the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York. In the six years since, we have seen a heightened awareness of infrastructure safety.

The freight trains are longer and heavier today, pulled by huge engines for the climb out of the city. Automobile traffic using the bridges is heavier. Drivers know the shortcuts, and even though Sisson Street is not exactly a Baltimore main street, it is a busy little route well patronized in this part of town.

Maybe it's time to start thinking about a whole new way of moving freight around Baltimore. The engineering minds of the 1890s found a way of doing it and gave us the Belt Line, which is now aged and complicated by all those tunnels.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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