Last night Amtrak and Baltimore escaped a potential disaster

The glaring safety and operational problems at the B&P Tunnel have been well-known since 1915.

howard street tunnel fire DOT

Twelve years ago, a fiery freight train fire under Howard St. burned for days and threatened serious damage to downtown Baltimore.

Photo by: U.S. DOT

Something happened underneath West Baltimore yesterday that transportation experts have worried about for decades.

A passenger train derailed in a tunnel used by more than 20,000 Amtrak and MARC passengers a day. The southbound Silver Meteor came to a sudden, jolting halt at 7 p.m in the Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel built shortly after the Civil War.

According to preliminary reports, the lead wheels of the locomotive had left the track, but all of the cars, carrying 158 passengers on the Miami-bound train, stayed upright on the rails.

A Lucky Set of Circumstances

No fire broke out from the damaged locomotive. More critically, no train was passing on the adjacent track, which could have sideswiped the disabled Silver Meteor and left passengers stuck in a smoke-filled and debris-strewn tunnel with no discernible escape route. (That’s more than a remote possibility when as many as 10 Amtrak and MARC trains go through the tunnel each hour.)

In short, Amtrak – and Baltimore – dodged a bullet.

On July 18, 2001, the city wasn’t so fortunate. A CSX freight train using the “other” ancient rail tunnel running through Baltimore (opened in 1895) jumped the tracks under Howard Street.

Days of chaos followed as an intense fire caused by chemicals and pulpwood carried on the train burned out of control. The fire cracked open a major water main, closed Oriole Park at Camden Yards and caused heavy damage to the Light Rail line on Howard Street.

Since that “catastrophic event,” the city has prepared itself much better for a disaster at either the Howard or B&P Tunnel. The Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management was notified by Amtrak of the derailment at 7:45 last night and sent fire equipment to the scene, according to mayoral spokesperson Caron Brace.

“BCFD quickly cleared the incident and, as there were no injuries or ongoing hazard, personnel left the scene in the hands of Amtrak,” Brace reported today, adding that the city, Amtrak and CSX use the Incident Command System to manage potentially serious rail accidents.

Map of current B&P Tunnel (solid line) and potential alternatives. From a 2005 Report to Congress, "Baltimore's Railroad Network: Challenges and Alternatives."

Map of B&P Tunnel (solid line) between North Ave. and Fulton Street and potential alternatives. (From 2005 report to Congress, Baltimore’s Railroad Network: Challenges and Alternatives.)

But what the city hasn’t yet accomplished is getting nearer to a solution to its obsolete rail infrastructure.

Economic Impact

On an economic level, the failure of the tunnels to accommodate modern double-stack container trains has placed Baltimore at a competitive disadvantage to other cities (Philadelphia, New York and Worchester/Boston) who have managed to finance the enlargement of rail tunnels serving their ports.

This inadequacy will become apparent as super-container ships using the expanded Panana Canal choose which ports of call to use on the East Coast after 2015.

As it happens, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is touring the Panama Canal project today, hawking its importance for job creation and port expansion in Baltimore.

Arguably, the mayor would be better advised to inspect her city’s own rail tunnels whose condition has been pinpointed by experts as substandard.

A Hundred Years of Plans

As early as 1915, the Pennsylvania Railroad sought to build a replacement to the 1.7-mile B&P Tunnel or reroute its entire right-of-way through Baltimore on an elevated line along Pratt Street. The latter proposal was vetoed by the city, but the Pennsy acquired the right-of-way for a new tunnel along Presstman Street just before the Great Depression.

Amtrak inherited the right-of-way when its acquired the Northeast Corridor and still owns the tunneling rights. A 1978 engineering study by the passenger railroad found the tunnel to be an operational mess – trains couldn’t safely travel through it at speeds over 30 mph.

Water was seeping from its roof and from weep holes in the tunnel sides. Drain pipes installed under the tracks to remove the water were clogged and water stood in open trenches between the rails.

The tunnel’s curvature, especially at Pennsylvania Avenue, where the tunnel turns sharply west to follow Winchester Street, ruled out any kind of high-speed service.

In 1981-82, track conditions nearly shut down the tunnel. Repairs to the lining, improved drainage and a major rebuild of the track structure allowed rail service to continue.

No Repairs since the 1980s

That was 30 years ago. There have been no major improvements to the tunnel since then as city, state, federal and Amtrak officials have gone through the motions of planning a new tunnel, only to conclude that there was no money available to do so.

Thus, the tens of thousands of people who go through the tunnel every weekday – to be joined by weekend patrons as MARC establishes Saturday and Sunday service next month between Baltimore and Washington – are entering the most hazardous piece of railroading along Amtrak’s entire 457-mile Northeast Corridor.

Accidents will happen, Elvis Costello reminds us. But accidents ought not to happen inside a structure that’s been identified as dangerous for decades – and that possesses no adequate escape routes for trapped passengers and crew.

Last night’s accident was a wake-up call. Is anyone listening?

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  • davethesuave

    unless & until the so-called leadership of this once-great city are ready to get real about attracting new taxpayers, there will not be enough money in the coffers to fix this, and myriad other problems. The Feds & Annapolis are not going to do this by themselves. Property tax relief must happen, soon. And even that probably will not be enough to change the path we are on.
    Having said that: I don’t think SRB will be around long enough to care, she’s moving on up, to the State side.

    • BmoreFree

      Why should it cost the city anything? The federal government has doled out billions over the years to build thousands of miles of interstate in those burgeoning metropolises of the Dakotas and Alaska. Moreover, since shipping and logistics firms would stand to benefit greatly, why should the city bear the brunt of any reconstruction? There is money available if government and business leaders would come together to make it THE priority for redevelopment. As it is, out of sight, out of mind.

      • James Hunt

        Priorities. Ditch the useless Red Line; invest in the B&P

        • BmoreFree

          For the cost of the red line the city could buy an entire trolley system that would be the envy of the nation and create a novel character for the city. Oh well…

  • John Molino

    So the city doesn’t want to build a tunnel to make Amtrack safe, and they don’t want to build a frieght tunnel to make the port more competitive, but they do want to build tunnel under downtown for the Red Line. Maybe they can magically build a ‘one size fits all’ tunnel.

  • cbroome

    Didn’t the city get money from the Obama administration’s high speed rail initiative to help with upgrades to the Amtrak lines? Was this tunnel just not affected, or did all that money fall through?

    • Day_Star

      Money was allocated to conduct further engineering studies of the tunnel, if I remember correctly. No hard cost allocation earmarked specifically for the tunnel.

  • flintsparc

    The train was already disabled in the tunnel for 45 minutes before the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management was notified?

  • Horseswaggled

    Geez –sounds like a pan handler for poor CSX. …the failure of the tunnels to accommodate modern double-stack container trains… who gives a hoot if the poor railroad has to have a extra trailer and by the numbers the tracks are open over 50 % of the time.

    Next write the story about how rotten were these tracks!!!

    • Day_Star

      Give a hoot because potentially fewer ships will come into Baltimore starting in 2015. Higher overall cost to move a ton of freight = incentive to find a lower cost alternative.

  • TazMan

    Mark, When and under what terms did NY, Philly and Boston enlarge their tunnels? Why did B’more not follow suit?

    • baltimorebrew

      TazMan: This would requires a separate story to explain thoroughly, but in essence Philly and NY, using state and private funds, lowered the tunnels to get double-stack trains into their ports. Just recently, CSX completed a double-stack-accessible project from New York State to Worcester, Mass., through the rugged Berkshires.

      CSX has been enlarging tunnels in western Pa. and Maryland to get double-stack trains to the outskirts of Baltimore, but then the trains run smack into the low-ceiling Howard St. Tunnel and a series of shorter tunnels along 26th St. This blocks the trains from running to the Dundalk Marine Terminal and, potentially, to a deep-water mega-ship port established at Sparrows Point.

      At present, CSX runs double-stack trains with single containers through Howard St. It wants to build a train-truck transfer station at Morrell Park to truck the containers to the port. Both measures keep the port competitive but don’t fully exploit its geographic advantages over Philly and New York – or keep it from losing business to Norfolk and Savannah.

      Recall that Baltimore is the BIRTHPLACE of American railroading because city fathers were determined to tap the wealth of the Midwest and wouldn’t let 500 miles of wilderness stop them. Such pioneering spirit died years ago in the hallways of City Hall and Annapolis despite the best efforts of Helen Bentley and a few other visionaries. –mr

      • TazMan

        Thanks Mark for a great answer.

        • craigpurcell

          What is the cause of Baltimore’s inability to handle a vision for the future and plan accordingly?

  • Sebastian Sassi

    While they’re at it, they need to end the at-grade crossing of Boston Street, which CSX regularly sees fit to jam up at 445pm in the afternoon like…every other day.

  • Gerald Neily

    Here’s a quick overview of the city’s railroad planning mess. The feds have been spreading their high-speed rail “stimulus” loot around the country to various places like Kalamazoo, Tampa and Madison, so that places that really need it like Baltimore just get crumbs. As such, replacing Bmore’s Amtrak B&P tunnel with the “Great Circle” is the closest thing to reality. However, that would pretty much only address the short-term passenger rail situation, not freight, and would only increase travel speed marginally, like 30 to 50 mph, nothing like the 300 mph high speed hype.

    The freight solution is still anyone’s guess. All reports agree that the Howard Street CSX tunnel cannot be expanded for double-stacked freight.

    The state did a Balto-to-DC high speed MagLev rail study over a decade ago, which in typically grand MTA style (see “Red Line”), took an isolated view and lurched directly from a vague concept into detailed project planning, with resulting awkward solutions to various engineering problems. The MTA plan recently elicited a quote in The Sun from the top US DOT MagLev expert: “God, it was pretty horrible.” Now a Japanese consortium wants to revive DC to NYC MagLev, while Amtrak prefers incremental improvements like their new mega-billion tunnel under the Hudson River.

    The real solution is to take a totally comprehensive look at intercity and commuter rail and freight rail. Everything relates to everything else. That must also be done before Baltimore can really get a handle on its long-range regional rail transit plan. One of the primary reasons the MTA’s 2002 plan is effectively dead is that it was done in a vacuum without knowing the long term status of any of the city’s rail corridors. What is the best long-term use of the CSX Howard Street tunnel and its belt line around 26th Street? Should the Amtrak corridor be optimized for local service with various additional whistle-stop stations such as Upton, Broadway and Bayview, or for maximum intercity speed? What’s the future of Penn Station? Will it serve a split-up intercity rail market along with a downtown terminal? Who knows?

  • VictoryG

    From the side discussions I heard at DOT, the dilemma right now is that replacing the whole stretch of tunnels is a couple of billion dollars. But do you know if there have been any ideas to widen the trench and run multiple rails through the right-of-way? I have checked in various places on aerial photos and the ROW is wide enough for 3 tracks + embankments, which would allow both cargo and passenger service to pass through the same corridor simultaneously. Is there a possibility that combining multiple users into the same corridor could be used to acquire several different funding sources (from both cargo proponents and passenger supporters)?

    • Gerald Neily

      That sure makes sense to me, Victory G (that’s a bad sign). But what it really demonstrates is that all these rail system problems – freight, Amtrak, high-speed, MARC intercity commuter, MTA regional – need a fresh comprehensive integrated non-preconceived solution.

  • jbl

    Yeah pines it is cheaper to haul by rick Shaw. You could start your new business. It would beat the hell out of your little cable installing job. Call it Lucinda can haul azz.

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