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City, CSX agree on improvements to Howard Street Tunnel

In the aftermath of an August derailment in the Howard Street Tunnel, CSX Transportation and Baltimore have jointly announced a series of actions to improve safety in the more than 100-year-old structure, including improved communications, stepped-up inspections and an accelerated track replacement program.

The agreement reflects an increasingly cooperative relationship between the freight railroad and City Hall and stands in stark contrast to the finger-pointing and recriminations that marked the response to the near-catastrophic 2001 fire in the tunnel.

Among other measures the Jacksonville, Fla.-based freight railroad will take are improvements in drainage, more frequent use of sophisticated computer-based equipment to detect track flaws and installation of a reliable radio transmitter in the tunnel. The city Fire Department pledged to develop a new plan to respond to incidents in the aging structure, a notorious bottleneck in the nation's freight rail infrastructure.

Robert Maloney, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, said CSX has also agreed to share information about movement of hazardous cargo through the city with Baltimore's first responders instead of requiring them to go through the state. That move would resolve a long-standing dispute with the city, which contended that the old system led to delays in obtaining information.

"It was a system that was full of hiccups," Maloney said. "The sooner that we get [information], the better off we are in terms of an accident."

Some of the actions announced yesterday were in CSX's plans before the derailment of 13 cars in the tunnel Aug. 5, said railroad spokesman Bob Sullivan. Others, he said, were a result of negotiations with city officials.

Sullivan said cooperation between the city and CSX has been improving for several years.

"The relationship between the city and CSX has actually become a very good one," he said. "All in all, it is positive."

That would not have been an accurate description of relations after the July 2001 derailment and chemical fire in the tunnel, which paralyzed downtown Baltimore for about a week. For several years after that incident, the mayoral administration of Martin O'Malley and a previous CSX management team tangled over who was to blame for the extensive damage and the costs of containing the fire.

But in a statement released Thursday to The Baltimore Sun, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city had forged a partnership with CSX to improve tunnel safety.

"As we learned on the day of the derailment, our first responders and CSX officials have a close working relationship that helps us prepare for incidents that impact the city and East Coast rail service," Rawlings-Blake said.

The August derailment disrupted north-south freight traffic for about a day, Sullivan said, but damage was limited to the track and cars. Later that month, CSX released a statement acknowledging that a broken rail in the tunnel, caused by a defect that could not be detected by visual inspection, had caused the derailment.

Among the improvements announced Thursday, CSX said it would replace track that normally would have been in use for 20 years after half that time. CSX said the move was in its plans at the time of the derailment.

The railroad also said it would increase infrared inspections to detect hidden track flaws from once per quarter to once a month. It also plans to install pumps and clean the track bed to improve drainage.

"I just get the sense that CSX really gets it, and they're going above and beyond with their maintenance," Maloney said.

The emergency chief said the city and railroad are now on the same page about the derailments that have been a recurring problem.

"We don't want to respond to it, and they don't want it happening," Maloney said.

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