Equanna Fisher says she often watches students and bus patrons slip under the CSX railway bridge, where water spews out day and night from a broken pipe.
But on the morning of August 25, she witnessed something worse on the 2600 block of West North Avenue.
“I was just lighting a cigarette, and when I looked up, there was a man flat on the ground.”
The man was 69-year-old Curtis L. Brown. He says he was knocked semi-conscious by a piece of wood that fell through a crack between the bridge’s exposed railway ties.
“I’ve not been been right ever since,” Brown said, showing his admission slip to Grace Medical Center after an ambulance, summoned by Fisher and others, took him to the hospital.
Treated for a head injury and neck strain, Brown says he is now undergoing physical therapy.
Last week, Brown took a reporter to this forlorn spot in West Baltimore, where rotting planks and soggy debris were found around the bridge, along with water still raining down from the damaged pipe.
“This is crazy. This bridge can knock somebody’s brains out, and the city don’t even bother to put some [warning] signs around this mess,” he said.
Just a week before, according to Fisher, a city truck had stopped under the bridge. A workman got out, walked the length of the sidewalk, then climbed back into the truck.
“They look but they never do nothing. I seen this happen many times,” she says.
Two employees at Coppin State agreed with Fisher that the pipe has been broken for months. One estimated that it’s been leaking into the street for almost two years.
The bridge is smack in the middle of a Black neighborhood that’s been trying hard to lift itself up.
There’s new affordable housing (Walbrook Mill Apartments) and a well-kept church (Mt. Hebron Baptist) on one side of the tracks.
On the other, there’s the impressive sight of major investments in public education at Coppin State University, including the Health & Human Services Building and the Science & Technology Center.
“If only we could get between them safely,” Fisher mused.
Wall of Silence
The bridge’s owner, meanwhile, isn’t talking.
Repeated phone calls and emails, along with photos of the bridge’s condition, were sent to Laura Phelps, senior director of public and media relations for Jacksonville, FL.-based CSX. There has been no response.
An email to Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, asking why a pipe leaking along a major city street hasn’t been fixed, got a quick response.
“This question should be directed to DOT or CSX,” said spokesman James E. Bentley II.
Asked the same question, DOT’s director of communications, German Vigil, said he will need some time to query staff.
Adding to the confusion, the emergency phone number taped onto the broken pipe turns out not to be a link to AT&T’s fiber optics division after all.
After many rings, a private citizen answered the number yesterday. He said he’s been inundated with similar calls.
“I’m retired, and I never worked for AT&T. I’ve been getting these calls for over a year,” he complained.
After a retaining wall owned by CSX collapsed in Charles Village in 2014, bringing down cars and a portion of East 26th Street with it, then-DOT Director William Johnson made a public pledge:
“We’re going to have a whole different level of focus on looking at these structures on a regular basis.”
The agency would regularly inspect CSX rights of way throughout the city, Johnson said, with an emphasis on the system’s aging retaining walls, viaducts and bridges.
That never happened.
After another section of 26th Street partially buckled and sank in 2018, Johnson’s successor, Michelle Pourciau, admitted the agency had not been inspecting city railroad bridges.
The agency once again vowed to “coordinate with CSX” and create a “citywide standard on monitoring and enhancing city infrastructure.”
It’s unclear whether, under current DOT Director Steve Sharkey, the agency has ever coordinated with CSX or conducted any inspections of its property.
Safety Narrowly Defined
Under Federal Railroad Administration rules, CSX and other freight-carrying railroads must conduct regular inspections of their rights of way.
But these inspections cover technical issues (rail wear, track gauge and crosstie condition), not potential safety hazards posed by railroad structures to the public.
The bridge over North Avenue was built by the Western Maryland Railway. It housed a small station before passenger service ended in the 1950s.
Since then, freight traffic has drastically shrunk due to the closure of the railroad’s once sprawling Port Covington export yards and the end of steelmaking at Sparrows Point.
One or two freight trains now rumble across the bridge every 24 hours.