Baltimore received a relatively gentle reminder last week of some unfinished business that it can ill afford to ignore.
A CSX freight train derailed last Thursday in the Howard Street tunnel, the scene of the nearly disastrous July 18, 2001, derailment and fire that paralyzed much of downtown for a week. Thirteen cars of a 79-car train left the tracks — 11 of them in the tunnel under Howard Street and two outside the portal at Mount Royal Avenue.
Baltimore got lucky when none of the hazardous materials being hauled by the train escaped, but traffic on the line was not restored until late Friday. Freight traffic up and down the East Coast was disrupted.
Last week's mishap came nowhere close to wreaking the damage the 2001 incident did, but it was a reminder that the nearly 120-year-old tunnel still runs through the heart of Baltimore carrying 20-25 trains a day — many of them carrying hazardous cargo through the East Coast's most notorious freight rail bottleneck.
Readers who were not in Baltimore in 2001 might not realize how big a deal the derailment was at the time, but people who were here will never forget it. Entire blocks were evacuated and three Orioles games were called off because of the proximity of Camden Yards to the tunnel. Water mains and power cables were broken. Passenger train traffic and light rail service were interrupted. Freight trains had to be diverted onto circuitous routes that took them as far west as Cleveland. For a week, Baltimore was the focus of national coverage.
Then, less than two months later, 9/11 effectively banished the tunnel fire from the national consciousness. There's no way a near-disaster can compete with the real thing.
The tunnel is still there, however, and it's not much closer to being replaced than the day the fire was declared to have been extinguished.
As long as it is still in use, Baltimore will never be entirely safe from a repeat of the 2001 derailment and fire — or worse. Even though the damages from that incident ran into tens of millions of dollars, the release of toxic materials was largely contained in the tunnel. Nobody died. That was nothing short of miraculous.
At the time, security officials and transportation experts recognized the incident as a wake-up call telling us that the old tunnel needed to be retired. Besides the inherent hazard of running dangerous chemicals through a major population center, there are compelling economic reasons to break the bottleneck. Most importantly, the tunnel can't handle double-stacked trains, which have become standard in the freight rail industry.
The need for a bypass is clear. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Transportation declared it a national goal to "remove all through freight service from the Howard Street Tunnel." Its report, underfunded after the freight rail industry declined to contribute money, identified the most promising alternative: what it called the Great Circle Freight Tunnel, looping under West Baltimore and connecting to existing tracks north of Penn Station.
The report found no good alternative to full replacement of the tunnel. "Further incremental repairs to existing facilities, other than for purposes of safety and operational continuity, will not address any of the inherent geometric problems that plague the transit of Baltimore by rail," it said.
But five years after that report was issued, progress is painfully slow. A second study has been under way since 2008 — using $3.75 million in federal and Maryland money and nothing from the railroads. Bob Kulat, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said a draft has been completed and its release is expected this fall.
It's not hard to anticipate some of the conclusions. The report will remind us that replacement of the tunnel is a matter of national, not local, significance. And it will put the price tag of bypassing the bottleneck in the billions of dollars.
Maryland's stake in the outcome is especially urgent. Mark Montgomery, chief executive of Seagirt Marine Terminal operator Ports America, said the lack of double-stacking capacity in the tunnel has denied steamship lines the opportunity to move discretionary rail cargo though Baltimore — forcing them to use other ports.
"It's a significant factor for cargo growth in the Port of Baltimore," Montgomery said.
CSX, for its part, seems nonchalant. The most spokesman Bob Sullivan would say about it was: "It's still an important part of our north-south route and we're still able to provide very good service to our customers."
Call me cynical but that sounds to me more like a bargaining position than a reflection of reality. CSX has as much to lose as anybody — except perhaps the citizens of Baltimore — from a reprise of 2001. Every day, its trains have to crawl along the tunnel's single track. But showing any sense of urgency goes against its interest in getting government to pick up most of the tab.
It would be naïve to believe a new tunnel should already be in place. Even under the best of circumstances, its replacement would be a decades-long effort.
But Marylanders have every reason to keep a spotlight on this project. It's Baltimore's downtown and the lives of its first responders that are at risk as long as dangerous chemicals are moving through that decrepit old cave.
Last week's column inadvertently misstated the location of the South Mountain rest stops on the Frederick- Washington County line. They're along Interstate 70.