Rail inspectors conduct urgent survey of tunnel at city's request

The Federal Railroad Administration conducted an emergency inspection during the weekend of the Howard Street Tunnel - site of a 2001 derailment and fire in downtown Baltimore - but found no serious safety problems.

The inspection was prompted by a complaint from the O'Malley administration, which asked the federal agency last week to look into what it called conditions "that may lead to another train derailment." The agency dispatched three inspectors to examine the tunnel Saturday, officials confirmed yesterday.

Robert Sullivan, a spokesman for tunnel owner CSX Transportation Inc., said the federal inspectors reported finding one minor problem, and it was outside the tunnel. It was fixed immediately, Sullivan said.

The railroad administration declined to detail its findings until it has formally notified the city, but spokesman Steve Kulm generally confirmed CSX's account.

A lawyer for CSX accused the city of making unjustified allegations in an effort to bolster the lawsuit it has brought against the railroad as a result of the tunnel fire. But City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler dismissed the accusation, saying the city's request for an inspection was made "for purely safety reasons."

Tyler said that as of last night, the city had yet to hear from the federal agency.

"It's good news if the tunnel is safe. That's our overriding concern here. We know there's a history of trouble with that tunnel," he said.

Letter from city

The inspection was prompted by a Jan. 26 letter in which Deputy City Solicitor Donald R. Huskey told the Federal Railroad Administration that Baltimore's attorneys and consultants observed "potentially serious" track conditions during an inspection five days earlier.

He asked the agency to conduct an immediate walking inspection of the tunnel, where a CSX Corp. train derailment in July 2001 led to a fire and the release of hazardous chemicals. The blaze and chemical spill took days to contain and tied up rail freight traffic all along the East Coast.

Huskey wrote that the city's Jan. 21 inspection found "inadequate ballast under and around ties resulting in hanging and unsupported ties and rail."

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, asked the federal agency to order CSX to

make repairs.

CSX alleges a ploy

CSX lawyer Heidi K. Hubbard responded in a letter to the railroad administration Monday, charging that the city sought the inspection "in an apparent attempt to help its litigation posture."

Hubbard, of the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly, characterized the city's report of ballast problems as a "bald allegation" backed by no evidence or documentation. The city's inspectors said nothing to the CSX employees who accompanied them about the condition of the tunnel, "as one would expect if the city truly believed an emergency situation existed," Hubbard wrote.

Tyler said yesterday that when the city's representatives saw things in the tunnel that raised concerns, the best course was to seek an independent inspection by government experts. "It would be irresponsible not to ask to have them investigated," he said.

Tyler said a litigation-related visit to the tunnel would not have been an appropriate occasion to raise the issue with CSX officials.

The exchange reflects continuing tensions between the city and CSX in the aftermath of the 2001 fire, which closed many downtown streets and businesses for almost a week and disrupted public transportation.

Ongoing dispute

Testy exchanges between the city and CSX began within days of the derailment as the two sides differed publicly over how quickly firefighters were notified of the derailment of 11 cars of a 60-car train.

Last summer, the city filed a lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages for the costs of fighting the fire and repairing a broken water main behind the tunnel wall.

Baltimore's suit claims the derailment ignited a fire that caused the water main to burst, causing flooding streets and knocking out electrical and telecommunications systems.

CSX contended the water main break was most likely the cause of the derailment, but that argument was rejected by the National Transportation Safety Board in its final report on the derailment last month.

"The NTSB said the water main broke hours after the derailment," Tyler said.

The board said it could not definitively identify the cause of the derailment, but said the most likely explanation "involved an obstruction between a car wheel and the rail" along with "changes in track geometry."

Hubbard's letter indicated that CSX is not backing away from its water main theory, referring to "growing evidence of problems with the city water system in the vicinity of the tunnel."

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