- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2001

The enormous snarl in rail traffic caused by a tunnel fire in Baltimore was an extreme example of the daily disruptions blamed on railroad bottlenecks in Maryland.
Many rail lines, tunnels and bridges were designed more than a century ago for trains that were lower and lighter, and which ran less frequently, than today's double-stacked, diesel-powered versions. Operators now must route trains around the mismatches, slowing the flow of goods.
Maryland and four other states are working with the railroads to identify these choke points and ease the congestion. They say it's all about efficiency, but a railroad researcher says bottlenecks signal a strained system and safety risks.
CSX Transportation Inc. spokesman Robert L. Gould said it would be premature to conclude before the investigation is finished that a safety error caused a CSX train hauling toxic chemicals to derail and catch fire in a tunnel beneath downtown Baltimore's Howard Street July 18.
It burned for five days and forced trains to detour as far west as Cleveland.
Mr. Gould acknowledged, though, that the Howard Street tunnel is a choke point in the CSX route that parallels Interstate 95. Like two other Baltimore tunnels, and many more in the Boston-to-Washington corridor, it is too low for some shipping containers stacked two-high on flatbed railroad cars.
A double-stacked load of new-generation shipping containers requires 20 feet, 2 inches of clearance — one foot more than the conventional containers they are replacing, said David L. Ganovski, director of rail freight services for the Maryland Department of Transportation.
"These tunnels were put together in the 1890s to accommodate needs at the time," Mr. Ganovski said. "I don't think it's any secret to any of us in Maryland and to people in the other states in the industrialized Northeast that there are many areas of aging railroad infrastructure going well up into New York state and well down into Florida."
Another CSX choke point is a stretch of single track linking two sets of double track along the Maryland-Washington border near Benning, Mr. Gould said.
"Your ability to move trains in a fluid manner is extremely limited," he said. "If the system is not in synch, then trains start to back up and the system starts to back up 30, 50, 100 miles down the line."
Norfolk Southern traffic is hampered by restrictions limiting its freight trains to nighttime hours on Amtrak-owned rails from Perryville to Baltimore, spokesman Rudy Husband said. The same tracks are overhung with power lines that prevent double-stacking of shipping containers, he said.
Mr. Husband said Norfolk Southern has no choke points on its north-south route through Hagerstown.
"Two years ago, we invested several million dollars to upgrade our line between Hagerstown and Harrisburg, our primary route to reach the Southeast," Mr. Husband said. That line is "very fluid right now," he said.
The railroad industry and the states of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania likely will seek federal funding to help ease choke points in the region, Mr. Gould said. He serves as spokesman for the group, called the I-95 Corridor Coalition, as well as for CSX.
The coalition, formed early this year, plans to release the findings of its choke-point study in late summer, Mr. Gould said.
Mr. Ganovski said the project is not a safety study. Choke points "have no impact on the safety of the system," he said.
Railroad researcher Steven Moss disagrees. Mr. Moss, of the public policy consulting firm M.Cubed in San Francisco, wrote in a report last year that increased railroad congestion is occurring at a time when railroads have fewer employees, including repair crews.
"This, in turn, has prompted significant declines in track quality, as documented by federal regulators and others," he wrote.
In an interview, Mr. Moss said bottlenecks indicate safety problems.
"Bottlenecks, per se, would immediately signal you've got a strained system that is under more pressure than it used to be, and that would indicate a safety risk," he said.

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