- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

Washington's Virginia Avenue Tunnel is one of the "choke points" railroads want to eliminate to avoid tie-ups such as the one caused by the July 18 train derailment in Baltimore.
But with limited land and private funding for building more rail lines, transportation officials say, more delays are likely unless government policies allow improvements soon. The Baltimore derailment slowed rail traffic along the East Coast for nearly a week.
"If we were to keep the status quo and the traffic continues to grow, we're going to encounter more delays," said David Ganovski, director of rail freight services for the Maryland Transportation Department. "I think that's a safe statement."
Nationally, rail traffic is growing about 2 percent per year, making the consequences of a derailment more severe with time, Mr. Ganovski said.
"You can't afford to have those kinds of shutdowns for very long," he said.
Several studies are scheduled for completion within months that are intended to guide government policy-makers.
One of the studies is being conducted by the Maryland Department of Transportation and railroads, such as CSX Transportation, whose 60-car train derailed in Baltimore on July 18. It is supposed to consider options for rail traffic through Washington into the Maryland suburbs.
Another study is being done by the I-95 Coalition, a New York public-private organization that seeks to reduce automobile, truck and rail congestion along the East Coast.
However, urban development in cities like Washington and Baltimore leave little room for new railroad lines.
"We do need additional track capacity in this Baltimore metropolitan area," Mr. Ganovski said. "However, whether you build and where you build is the million-dollar question. It may even be the billion-dollar question."
Baltimore's Howard Street Tunnel, where the July 18 derailment occurred, is surrounded by a downtown area filled with industrial, office and residential complexes. They would need to be torn down to make way for a new rail line, Mr. Ganovski said.
Washington's Virginia Avenue Tunnel poses similar restrictions. It is near L'Enfant Plaza and within walking distance to the Capitol and the Smithsonian Museum.
CSX is limited to running no more than one track through both the Virginia Avenue Tunnel and the Howard Street Tunnel. In Baltimore, the tunnel's low height leaves no room for modern double-stacked rail cars that give trains room to carry more freight.
"You cannot significantly improve this 1895 structure beyond the point it already has been improved," Mr. Ganovski said.
Meanwhile, the Howard Street Tunnel is the only access point along the East Coast for rail travel through Baltimore.
Options being studied by the Maryland Transportation Department include building new rail lines around downtown, perhaps through suburbs.
"There are probably three, four or five different routes that may or may not be usable," Mr. Ganovski said.
Height and track restrictions create similar problems for rail traffic through Washington, said CSX spokesman Rob Gould.
"It's the same if you look at the Virginia Avenue Tunnel," Mr. Gould said. A derailment or similar accident in the tunnel would force railroads to reroute trains around Washington, perhaps as far away as West Virginia.
"If your main route is blocked, you have to find alternative means for movement," Mr. Gould said. "Often that can result in delays of shipments."
Overhead clearance in the Virginia Avenue Tunnel is too low for CSX's rail cars that carry automobiles, which is a major source of revenue for large railroads.
CSX has a contract that allows the Maryland Transportation Department to operate MARC commuter rail on CSX tracks. The contract, which took effect in January, requires both organizations to study ways to increase capacity.
Mr. Gould said he doubted that limiting railroads to current restrictions would be considered. Railroad customers, MARC commuters and motorists would suffer as much as the railroads, he said.
"Both MARC and CSX seek to improve our customer base," Mr. Gould said. "Otherwise, we risk shifting the traffic back to the highways, which is something neither of us want to see happen."
Similar concerns motivated the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to consider a public-private venture for a $370 million track upgrade between Richmond and Washington. If funding issues can be resolved, it is targeted for completion in 2007.
Railroads say their private funding and land-use restrictions are inadequate to make the improvements needed to eliminate all rail delays and chokepoints.
The Federal Railroad Administration is hinting that more public money might become available for them. "There is a public interest in supporting improvements," said Corry Schiermeyer, FRA spokeswoman.

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