Rail plan is latest in a long line

The Federal Railroad Administration's recent study of Baltimore's freight and passenger railroad infrastructure attempts to address the many issues that have troubled rail operations in and under the city for more than a century.

The genesis for the study was the 2001 freight train derailment and fire in the Howard Street Tunnel that shut down rail operations for days.


"John Q. Public freaked out, and they began to see trains as a threat after hearing about hazardous cargoes and seeing images of smoke pouring from the Howard Street Tunnel," said Frank A. Wrabel, Baltimore rail historian and author.

The Baltimore & Ohio, the nation's first chartered common-carrier railroad, was founded in 1827, and it began building westward from Baltimore. In less than 50 years, the city and state would be criss-crossed from one end to the other by a vast network of steel rails.


The B&O; was joined in freight and passenger hauling by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which became its archrival. Today, CSX, Norfolk Southern, and Amtrak have become the heirs to the B&O; and Pennsy.

If any one of the study's proposals becomes a reality, it would certainly alter significantly the current rail layout, such as removing freight traffic through CSX's Howard Street Tunnel, replacing the 1873-era Baltimore & Potomac Tunnel west of Pennsylvania Station, and building new tunnels -- including one under the Patapsco River connecting Hawkins Point and Sparrows Point -- for freight trains traveling north and south.

"Although convoluted and antiquated, Baltimore's railroads have strategic importance far beyond the confines of their immediate region," the report says.

The report also states that "one-fifth of Amtrak's passenger-trips, one-quarter of its passenger-miles, and one-third of its ticket revenues depend on travel over Baltimore's railways."

The price for this wish list is staggering. The great-circle passenger tunnel next to the present B&P; Tunnel, which would travel in an arc northwest and under Presstman Street, would cost an estimated $500 million.

"This is all old ground, and I think it's overkill," Wrabel said, recalling other suggested rail improvement projects that foundered for financial and political reasons over the years.

The B&O; began operation of its Belt Line -- including the 7,340-foot-long Howard Street Tunnel -- in 1895, and from the beginning, it has been a battle among men, machines, and topographical and geological elements.

"Having to climb up that fall line and then follow that circuitous route is pure hell," said Ken Briers, a rail consultant with Parsons Transportation Group in Washington.


"B&O; President Leonor F. Loree immediately saw problems in the early 1900s with the Belt Line's grades and curves and thought about replacing it completely," said Herbert H. Harwood Jr., a retired railroad executive and author of The Royal Blue Route.

Over the next two decades, the B&O; and the Pennsy pooled ideas on how to overcome what Harwood describes as "Baltimore bottlenecks."

An elevated railroad line around the harbor and a four-track freight tunnel extending under Pratt Street from Poppleton Street to a point east of Patterson Park, with open cuts at each end connecting tracks of both the B&O; and Pennsy, was the talk of 1916.

Another proposal was the development by the B&O; of the Patapsco and Susquehanna Branch during the Loree years.

The planned route was to have been a freight shortcut between the Old Main Line at Gorsuch, east of Sykesville, that connected with the railroad's Philadelphia-New York mainline at Van Bibber, west of Edgewood. The advantage was that Baltimore and the troublesome Howard Street Tunnel would be avoided.

"The Patapsco & Susquehanna's origins are obscure, its history extremely murky, and its demise uncertain. The only thing for sure is that it disappeared with scarcely a trace, except for a few mysterious, conflicting maps, and conductors' tales," wrote Harwood in a 2002 monograph published in News & Notes, a B&O; retirees association publication.


The 38-mile line's routing would take it from the Patapsco River Valley, through Granite and then across western and northern Baltimore County. It would have crossed the Pennsy's Northern Central Division north of Riderwood, approximately where today's Beltway is located.

And then the Pennsy became interested in using part of the planned route for its service.

"Needless to say, nothing ever happened. World War I came and went with none of the coordination projects ever consummated, and the postwar recession of 1921-1922 temporarily shortstopped any grand projects," wrote Harwood. "The B&O; apparently still kept the Patapsco & Susquehanna idea alive, however, and it was rumored, it bought some property for the line in the Towson area."

Harwood chalks up the Patapsco & Susquehanna to another one of railroading's "what might have been" solutions.

Regarding the present study, Briers said, "You can do anything if you spend enough money."