For faster train travel, Amtrak wants to fix railway bottlenecks in Maryland

For faster train travel, Amtrak wants to fix its Northeast Corridor bottlenecks in Maryland.

As Amtrak trains whisk passengers hundreds of miles along the East Coast between Boston and Washington, they're forced to slow down at four pinch points in Maryland, where ancient railroad infrastructure can't accommodate the high speeds and capacity of modern train technology.

Officials have begun planning to fix two of the bottlenecks, the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge, which opened 110 years ago, and the even older Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, built under the city in the decade after the Civil War.

Eliminating those choke points would speed up travel along the Northeast Corridor, officials say, bringing Amtrak closer to its goal: a two-hour trip between New York and Washington.

Paying for it, however, is another issue.

While Congress has funded the relatively inexpensive planning studies, replacing the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge project could take up to a decade and cost between $800 million and $1 billion, according to Amtrak estimates. The B&P Tunnel is a $4 billion project. Neither has been funded for construction.

The other two aging pinch points, the Gunpowder River Bridge between Chase and Joppa, and the Bush River Bridge between Edgewood and Perryman, have not received money to be studied, said Paul DelSignore, senior director for structures at Amtrak.

Amtrak faces a construction backlog of at least $28 billion, according to a capital investment plan published last month by the Northeast Corridor Commission, a group of state, federal and other stakeholders.

The studies alone take years and cost tens of millions of dollars.

The Maryland Department of Transportation is overseeing the B&P Tunnel and the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge projects, but the federal government is expected to foot most of the bill because of the cost and the impact on the overall corridor, said Bradley Smith, the state's director of freight and multimodalism.

"Those two are referred to as major backlog projects," Smith said. "Finding funding at those levels will be challenging, but also we realize the significance of these projects, and we hope that the federal government does as well."

The state and freight train companies that also use the tracks, such as CSX and Norfolk Southern, also could be asked to contribute, he said.

Federal construction money is uncertain, but the state is forging ahead with the preliminary studies to ensure both projects are ready to go.

"All eyes are on these projects," said Jacqueline Thorne, the project manager for the state. "The Northeast Corridor is a top priority. ... We don't want Maryland to continue to be the choke point."

The projects will have to vie for funding with the multibillion-dollar Gateway project to update century-old rail tunnels under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey.

Amtrak initially slated the two Maryland projects for completion by 2025, but it'll likely be closer to 2040, DelSignore said.

"They haven't gotten off the ground yet," he said.

Congress has been reluctant to allocate additional taxpayer money to Amtrak, especially given that the government-owned passenger railroad is subsidized already and isn't profitable.

"The obvious comparison people make is: 'They do it in Europe, why can't they do it here?'" said Ken Briers, a board member National Association of Railroad Passengers.

"The answer is: Their governments spend the money on this, and ours does not," he said. "Europeans pay a lot more than we do in taxes, but they get free health care and trains that run every hour."

Briers, a retired locomotive engineer and operations analyst, said passenger demand exists for faster trains and more capacity. In Baltimore, he said, trains heading both north and south from Pennsylvania Station are so crowded it can be tough to find a seat and nearly impossible to find two together.

Opening up the bottlenecks in the Northeast Corridor would allow for more trains, he said, which are an increasingly popular option, particularly with millennials.

At the Susquehanna River Rail Bridge, which connects Havre de Grace and Perryville, the 88 Amtrak trains that cross it daily must slow from up to 160 mph to 90 mph to cross the roughly three-quarter-mile span safely. Amtrak shares the bridge with plodding Norfolk Southern freight trains, which can exacerbate the congestion.

When it was built in 1906 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, the bridge was a replacement project itself. The concrete piers of the original, Civil War-era bridge are still visible in the water next to it. The plans for a new bridge include removing those piers and building it there.

Once that bridge is built, the current one would be replaced, creating two parallel, two-track bridges, which would allow Amtrak and Norfolk Southern to use separate tracks and reduce congestion.

While the bridge passed its most recent inspections and remains safe, officials say, it is nearing the end of its usable life.

Perryville and Havre de Grace residents know the bridge needs to be replaced; their biggest concern is how the new one will look.

The Susquehanna River Rail Bridge Advisory Committee, created in 2014 by Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne H. Dougherty and the City Council, has met several times with Amtrak and state transportation officials and issued 20 advisories with recommendations for the bridge, including color and lighting.

"The overall appearance of the proposed Susquehanna River Rail Bridge is of the highest priority of importance to the Town of Perryville, City of Havre de Grace, surrounding communities, both counties, and the State of Maryland," the group wrote in one advisory.

The committee includes a professional engineer, a retired judge and a public safety expert, among others, who offer insightful input into the process, said committee Chairman Volney H. Ford.

The group also has examined the impact of the bridge landings on both sides, which feature historic sites, parks and waterfront views, said Ford, who is also chairman of the Havre de Grace city planning committee.

The city's long-term goal is to build a MARC commuter station, Ford said. The bridge advisory committee asked Amtrak to spread the tracks out enough as they are reinstalled to accommodate a station in the future.

"We're right on top of every little detail," he said.

Residents of West Baltimore outright oppose plans to replace the 1.4-mile B&P Tunnel, worrying that the trains passing under their homes would shake foundations and cause more pollution.

The sharp curves of the existing tunnel force trains to slow to a crawl under the city. The more sweeping arc of the proposed tunnel under Reservoir Hill would allow Amtrak trains to double the current speed.

Officials have sought to work with neighborhood groups. They reconfigured the tunnel renovations to displace fewer residents — 17 instead of the initially planned 41 — and relocated a proposed air-vent facility away from a community garden.

While Kathy Epple, president of a group called Residents Against the Tunnels, supports an improved Northeast Corridor, she has a slew of concerns about the B&P project. Vibrations from the trains could damage her 121-year-old, brick-and-plaster rowhouse on Eutaw Place, she wrote in a letter of testimony in February.

If a developer's vision of a separate, magnetic levitation train between Baltimore and Washington, supported by Gov. Larry Hogan, becomes a reality, Epple wrote, it could poach passengers from Amtrak, leaving the tunnel to take on more freight traffic. Hazardous materials such as nuclear fuel traveling under her neighborhood are another cause for concern, as are the toxins released from diesel engines, she said.

"I believe it is wrong to expose highly populated areas to these dangers," she wrote.

In a $1 million report to Congress in 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration called Baltimore's section of the Northeast Corridor "convoluted and antiquated."

Despite some improvements, the rail network "is essentially the same as the geometrically compromised and operationally handicapped system cobbled together during the post-Civil War decades," the FRA wrote.

The updates to the tunnel and the bridge still wouldn't put the U.S. on level footing with Asian and European countries that have better invested in their railroads for decades, DelSignore said, but they would be an incremental step up.

"It gives higher speed rail to America," he said. "Increased speed and capacity of the Northeast Corridor is good for the general economics of the corridor."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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