Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What Amtrak wants to do to make Baltimore part of a high speednortheast corridor

Officially the study is called the B&P Tunnel Study, a title that could put even the liveliest person to sleep. But the bigger story is actually quite exciting. Consider the following:

  • Amtrak will no longer consider replacing Penn Station (as in earlier NEC studies) and will instead keep it as Baltimore's Station not only for MARC commuter trains but also along it NEC high speed rail line (HSR)
  • A masterplan for Penn Station is in the works but is another project than the tunnel study
  • Amtrak plans for a four track configuration that allows the slower MARC trains on the outside and the faster Amtrak trains on the inside without sharing a track as they do today
  • Speeds south of Penn Station (under West Baltimore) would increase from 30mph to up to 100mph for Amtrak and 60mph for MARC
  • The West Baltimore MARC station will be retained with a slight shift to the south for a straighter and ADA compliant platform as already previously conceptualized by MTA
  • Alternatives that would have taken down up to 50 rowhouses and the historic Ice House in West Baltimore and put the WestvBaltimore MARC station into a ditch are off the table and not any longer considered
Acela HSR
All this was part of a public presentation organized by FRA (Federal Railroad Administration), MDOT,  Baltimore City DOT and Amtrak last night at the Carver Vocational School in West Baltimore. (Two more such presentations are scheduled).

Yes, this presentation was part of the B&P study that has been in the news a few times but has been and discussed by Geeks and railroad buffs because  hardly anybody could  figure out easily what this is about, except that it is about replacing the age old tunnel through which Amtrak and MARC trains are currently crawling (built in 1873). Here a valuable fact from the report release this month:
In 2014, a total of 145 daily trains with a peak of 35 trains during the four‐hour afternoon peak period traversed the B&P Tunnel carrying 21,600 passengers daily.    The majority (79 percent) were Amtrak passengers. The FRA is developing an NEC FUTURE program, a rail investment program through 2040.   This program will identify capacity and operational needs for the NEC, including the need for four tracks through the City of Baltimore.  
Today's train tunnel under West Baltimore (the B&P Tunnel) is shallow and daylights twice

Other little nuggets of wisdom I took from tonight's meeting: 
  • The project is quite limited in its considerations and barely refers to the big idea of a true Northeast High Speed corridor. 
  • It also doesn't really consider the freight needs except in the subtle way they creep into Amtrak's passenger rail focus through "trackage rights" held by Norfolk Southern. (They involve currently only one train pair a day to serve local customers)
  • the project doesn't care that the eastern approach tunnel between Broadway and Penn Station is also a bottleneck that slows trains down
  • the project certainly doesn't care about any plans for Maglev
  • if anybody thought the Red Line ventilation structures were big, consider the B&P replacement tunnel vent buildings: They are 100'x200' feet on the ground and 50' high! Half a city block large. 
  • The tunnel portal on the north side would impact the North Avenue LRT station
  • The tunnel is planned to be under 100' deep for no other reason than that it has to dive under the Metro line at Pennsylvania Avenue
  • Because of the dive under the Metro the slope reaches the maximum of 2 % considered acceptable for HSR
  • the maximum slope is already reached with single track bores which is the real reason why two-track bores aren't even considered (with their larger diameter they would be even deeper down)
the proposed new tunnels (shown Alternative 3) is deep under the city and has larger radii

As the BBJ reports in its article about the project, the reconstruction of the current tunnel isn't any further considered as an alternative except that it is the "no-build" option that the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process requires as a baseline for each project. 

Design criteria include these (from the report):
The design criteria include four standard‐gauge tracks optimized for Amtrak and MARC operations, and the ability for all tracks to support use by freight trains.  Tunnels must allow design speeds to reduce travel time relative to the existing tunnel.  Sufficient vertical clearance is also needed to accommodate double stack container freight rail cars(Plate H double stack clearance envelope).  Design speed is a maximum 110 mph forintercity passengertrains, maximum 70 mph for commuter passenger trains, and maximum 50 mph for freight trains.  Frequent changes in gradient are to be avoided and change in elevation in feet per 100 feet of horizontal distance shall not exceed 2 feet (or 2.000 percent grade). At the mining portals, depth must be a minimum of 50 feet from existing ground surface to top of rail.
What is a bit annoying in the presentation of alternatives is the absence of an alternative that shows a phased project in which the two HSR tracks would be accommodated in two new "big circle" tunnel bores and the local MARC tracks would ultimately remain in the existing tunnel. The sequence of contruction would be to keep all trains in the current tunnel while the two new tubes are built, then all train traffic would be moved to the new tubes while the old tunnel gets refurbished. When all is said and done, Amtrak would exclusively run in the new tunnel and MARC exclusively run in the old one. The problem with that much cheaper alternative would be that the fast tracks would need to be brought into the center position south of the tunnel so that MARC can have side platforms on the two outer tracks.
Alternative 3 alignment

Yes, this got a bit geeky, too. But all things considered, the mere fact that FRA and Amtrak are spending real money on this study nurtures the hope, that one day we may actually see really fast trains run between Boston and Washington and they will actually stop in Baltimore. The BBJ says, this tunnel would cost $4 billion. That gets us to the money part.

Engineering, let alone construction, are not funded yet. (Only the $60 million study phase is funded). And once funding would be in place, the Governor of Maryland may still pull the plug just as he has already done before and just like his colleague Christie did for another HSR bottleneck elimination project, the rail tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey. And all this 40 years after Europe and Japan started constructing HSR. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

BBJ article about the latest B&P Aletrnatives Report

October Alternatives Report (Part 1) (Part 2)

North Portal (Alternative 3a)
Odessa Phillip of City DOT "educating the public about the progress of the project"


  1. Thanks for detailing what happened in the meeting. I was hoping to make it to the meeting as I use the MARC train daily to commute to DC and can't wait for a better tunnel system that doesn't slow or stop trains waiting to enter the tunnel.