After a night of excavation and clearing out crumbled pieces of sidewalk and other debris, it was clear Tuesday that a section of the retaining wall holding East 26th Street in Baltimore above a cut of railroad tracks was failing.
It hadn’t collapsed fully, and there was no massive landslide of mud and cars onto the CSX Transportation line below as occurred in a similar incident on the street in 2014. In fact, trains were running Tuesday morning along the route, which connects the busy Port of Baltimore to points west.
But along half the block between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue in Charles Village, the wall had cracked and shifted, leaning away from the street and toward the tracks. Workers had cleared out a big trench of earth behind it, and could be overheard discussing when and how to remove the damaged wall.
The work followed a sinking of the sidewalk along the street and atop the retaining wall that began accelerating Monday morning and captured the attention of city officials.
German Vigil, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Transportation, said workers planned to completely remove the compromised portion of the wall, and crews would construct another structure to prevent more earth from shifting toward the train tracks.
“They’re going to remove that entire section of the wall,” he said.
Vigil said crews had “excavated all of the pressure that was being mounted into the wall,” and the wall and the surrounding area were now stable. Still, CSX crews were assessing Tuesday whether they needed to build additional supports to ensure nothing falls onto the tracks, he said.
He said train operations along the busy rail line resumed at reduced speeds as of 2 a.m. Tuesday.
The section of 26th Street between Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue was fenced off Tuesday morning, and a stretch of Calvert Street from 25th to 27th streets remained closed as a staging area. Vigil said he did not know how long the project would take to complete.
It remained unclear Tuesday what steps the city had taken to inspect the retaining wall and others in the area since the similar wall two blocks west collapsed in 2014.
One neighbor, Colleen Woods, said she hadn’t received any updates from the city.
Mayor Catherine Pugh said Monday that engineers would be on site to keep local residents informed, but workers would not share any information about the project’s progress or timeline for completion.
CSX, which owns the railroad tracks, has said it is acting in a supporting role with the city in the repair process. The railroad said in a statement Tuesday that it had determined it was safe to resume rail traffic in consultation with city officials and contractors “who were working through the night to stabilize the retaining wall.”
Vigil said the city and CSX have not yet discussed who will pay for the repairs. CSX has repeatedly referred to the repair work as a city project, saying in its statement that “CSX personnel will remain on site to assist the city in their efforts if needed.”
The railroad said it “regularly inspects and maintains its property, which in this particular area includes the railroad tracks, several feet of right-of-way on either side of the tracks, and a lower retaining wall positioned closer to the tracks and below the impacted wall.
“After the wall collapse in 2014, CSX worked very closely with the city to clearly outline ownership and maintenance responsibilities along this stretch of tracks,” it said. “We have a very good relationship with the city and we’re more than happy to assist them in matters like this, which obviously affect us and the surrounding neighborhood. Right now, the focus is on safely fixing this issue, so conversations about costs will come later.”
In 2014, when a retaining wall along an entire block of East 26th Street between Charles and Calvert streets collapsed, taking parked cars and sidewalk and street lights with it, contractors managed to get the trains running again within a day and a half. And they then set out on a construction project to replace the wall that took more than a year and cost an estimated $12 million to $13 million. The city and CSX split those costs, and together paid residents displaced by the collapse $1.2 million.
In that project, contractor WRA built a temporary wall of steel piles along the center of East 26th Street, then excavated and cleared out all of the debris and dirt between that new wall and the train tracks. Workers then constructed a new concrete wall where the original collapsed wall had been, backfilled the space between the pilings wall and the concrete wall, and reconstructed the street.
Residents on that block were evacuated and could not return to their homes for a month as the temporary pilings wall was constructed and the street was first stabilized. The full project lasted more than a year.
No families have been evacuated in this latest problem with the retaining wall, which is more contained and on a much smaller scale than the last one.
Officials also had not disclosed a cause for the latest collapse, though the city had seen record-breaking rain in recent days and weeks. The collapse in 2014 was attributed in part to intense rains then having undermined the stability of the stone retaining wall.