Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Is the proposed B&P tunnel dangerous?

If Hogan's transportation statements had one impact, it may be that people find rail tunnels dangerous. That at least was my impression when, an audience member asked during at the mayoral transportation forum about "bomb trains". Almost all mayoral candidates backed away from plans for a new B&P tunnel, a 141 year old relic of the times when Baltimore was real transportation innovator and leader. That is especially curious because if anything is dangerous, it is the current tunnel. So dangerous, in fact, that even the British Economist took note in February of last year.
Existing two track B&P tunnel portal

Baltimore is an impediment for east coast rail transportation. High speed trains (HSR) travelling on the highly successful northeast corridor (NEC) from Boston and New York to the Nation's Capital get slowed down from their maximally 150mph speed to a measly 30mph when traversing under Baltimore in that old West Baltimore tunnel.

Another impediment is that double stacked freight trains (tall freight cars with two containers sitting on top of each other) can't get through Baltimore at all (the ancient tunnels are too low) which puts a serious choke-hold on the Port of Baltimore and container movements to and from there. But that is another story and shouldn't be conflated with the B&P tunnel, a passenger rail tunnel with only minimal freight movement.

The NEC is the nations fastest and most travelled passenger rail corridor. It is no surprise, then, that the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak started to study how bottlenecks and slow points can be eliminated in the context of upgrading the NEC to high speed rail standards. This is where the new B&P tunnel project fits in, but one would hardly know it from how it is publicly presented.

The tunnel replacement study is in the early stage when after a "Purpose and Needs" statement alternatives are evaluated in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. (The public comment period just ended). Nothing is funded yet for construction. The agencies held a series of public meetings in which the alternatives were presented and the project explained. Some onerous alternatives were eliminated based on public comments in 2014. But the public got spooked anyway. There is much fear about the bored tunnels endangering buildings above it, about the ventilation structures impacting the community and now about "bomb trains", i.e. freight trains carrying highly volatile Bakken crude oil.
"The tunnel would run directly underneath my house, and I'm concerned about what it would do to the structural integrity. My home begins to vibrate if a bus passes by. What happens if we dig 100, 150 feet below it?" Lauren Haney Provost, Reservoir Hill resident in a public meeting on February 6, 2016
Existing B&P tunnel segments (long section). The tunnel is shallow with little coverage
This fear is unfortunate because much of it is based on misconceptions and false information, more proof that the traditional outreach on large transportation projects simply doesn't work. The local public politicians with strong misgivings about the tunnel replacement project include mayoral candidates Catherine Pugh and Nick Mosby who both attended the public presentations of Amtrak. According to the SUN they fear that "already struggling residents have their community upended just to shave an average two minutes off the commuting time for people who don't live in Maryland".

The concern that transportation projects get carried out on the backs of poor communities is not unfounded, for sure, especially not in Baltimore. Still, to see the tunnel project in its real importance requires a broader view. 

Unfortunately, the information available from the project team of Amtrak, the Federal Railroad Administration and consultants is not very clear on the matter of freight as part of this passenger rail project. For example, the technical reports (for example on hazardous materials) don't discuss the possibility of hazardous freight being transported in the tunnels. These omissions and the complicated history of railroad rights in America allow the rampant speculation that sometimes even reaches the level of conspiracy theories. 

The proposed tunnels are located deep under the city in all alternatives

Let's try to get some of the basic facts straight:
  • The entire NEC is under consideration for various upgrade scenarios towards a more or less ambitious realization of true high speed passenger rail. If the B&P tunnel cannot be replaced in one of the suggested alternatives, it would possibly mean to abandon Penn Station, an option that was early on part of NEC corridor alternatives 
  • For the B&P two-track tunnel replacement four individual one-track tunnel bores are proposed, each about 24' in diameter, standard size boring machines dig such tunnels all the time.
  • Those tunnels would be chiefly used by high speed Amtrak passenger trains and MARC and accommodate tracks rights that Norfolk Southern holds. (Four trains a day run in the current B&P tunnel a day)
  • CSX has no physical access to the existing or proposed tunnel tracks but (according to the SUN) holds some grandfathered track rights and could conceivably assert itself and ask to run in the proposed project, provided they would design and pay to reconfigure the approaches so they could even get into those tunnels. CSX runs its freight through the Howard Street tunnel and it the open cut on 23rd Street where the retaining wall had famously collapsed. On that alignment it does transport oil as well.
The current tunnel is very shallow and trains can, indeed, be felt in some homes and buildings along the route which is located under public right of ways. However the vibrations are not in any way challenging the structures, both have coexisted for 141 years. The proposed tunnel bores are much deeper (about 100' deep). They are not limited to a location under streets, but their depth will make it extremely unlikely that they impact structures above, not even in sections less than 100' deep. Such tunnel bores under cities are common for subways and trains around the world.

The main permanent community impact would come from three large ventilation structures that need to sit somewhere above the tunnel to comply with current code for ventilation. (The existing tunnel doesn't have those). The renderings provided by the project team show massive boxy buildings.
An older NEC map showing alternative alignments in the Baltimore
area including one not using Penn Station anymore

In summary, these are the main take aways that citizens and politicians should consider:
  • It is important for Baltimore that the North-East Corridor (NEC) be upgraded. Better passenger travel speeds in the whole corridor is vital to Baltimore's future. If anybody thinks that MagLev would be the better future needs to consider how vastly bigger the impacts of such a project would be on Baltimore and DC upending everything we have in place for rail travel right now.
  • It is important for Baltimore's future that Penn Station remains Baltimore's main long distance rail station. Amtrak has just now been pushed by Congressman Cummings to invest there and commit to transit oriented development similar to what is planned in DC or what has already been realized in Denver, CO
  • Freight will be only a minor element in the B&P project since Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration call the shots on these tracks regarding schedule and capacities. 
  • The discussion about safe freight travel through Baltimore City is necessary and should be had but it is one that should revolve around existing freight corridors and possible future improvements including double-stacking
  • The proposed B&P replacement tunnels will impact the communities only in minor ways if the minimal impact alternative is selected (no houses taken) and the ventilation structures get placed and designed in collaboration with the community
  • Attempts to combine an improved existing tunnel with a smaller number of new tunnel bores would result in increased impacts especially at the southern tunnel portal because of the difficulty of weaving the tracks which come out of the tunnels at different elevations together again ("tie-in").

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
The author is not involved in the project and has no stake in it

Links:
SUN article about community opposition
Purpose and Need statement for the tunnel replacement project (2014)
B&P Alternatives as of October 2015 (Part II)

Links on this blog:
The Northeast Corridor
Dangerous Cargo in our midst