Eighteen inches is enough to hold the Port of Baltimore back from record-setting revenues.

Even when the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge is finally cleared and port activity gets back on track, the Howard Street Tunnel, a 1.7-mile section of CSX Transportation’s rail operation that cuts under downtown Baltimore, will still be a foot-and-a-half shy of being able to handle the freight fad of the future — double-stacked cargo trains.

The price of the ongoing project to increase height clearance at the tunnel and 22 other nearby choke points has gone up by about $100 million since the project was developed, according to a Maryland Port Administration official. CSX will cover $55 million of that increase, according to the revised budget, and Maryland’s Department of Transportation will foot the rest. Officials now estimate the total cost at $566 million, with an estimated completion date of 2027.

The project comes 23 years after a freight train derailment in the tunnel led to an underground chemical fire that burned for nearly a week, shutting down parts of downtown and disrupting freight rail traffic, according to The Baltimore Sun. Federal officials looked at rerouting trains carrying hazardous materials away from downtown or building freight tunnels elsewhere, but determined those were not feasible.

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The work on the 129-year-old Howard Street Tunnel, which extends north from Camden Yards to the Mount Royal Station, is one of two major tunnel projects underway in Baltimore.

Amtrak recently broke ground on construction activities for the future Frederick Douglass Tunnel, just west of the Howard Street Tunnel. It will replace an existing Civil War-era tunnel that is a key link in Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service. Amtrak says it is designing the new tunnel for its electrified passenger trains, though the existing tunnel handles a small amount of freight traffic.

A small concrete tunnel entrance is shown behind a chain link fence; a Maryland light rail car is traveling on the tracks above it and two high rise buildings are in the background.
The unassuming southern portal of the Howard Street freight tunnel lies nearly hidden underneath the light rail tracks next to Camden Yards. (Daniel Zawodny)

The Port of Baltimore is reeling from a shutdown costing it — and the shipping companies that operate there — boatloads of money, and CSX will be a key player in making up ground. Raising the height clearance at the 23 choke points to accommodate the stacking of two containers will complete CSX’s vast network of double-stack-capable railways that extends for thousands of miles along the East Coast.

“For years, the lack of double-stack container rail capabilities has been a significant disadvantage for the Port of Baltimore,” said Richard Scher, director of communications for the Port. Allowing trains to stack one shipping container — typically about 8½ feet tall on top of another will help Baltimore keep pace with other port cities.

Last year, the port handled more than a million 20-foot-long containers, part of a record-setting year that saw roughly $80 billion worth of merchandise pass through it. And the ongoing effort to expand at Tradepoint Atlantic — the only port location currently open because of its location beyond the Key Bridge wreck — should increase the port’s container capacity by 70%.

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The former site of Bethlehem Steel in Southeast Baltimore County has been busy — federal money recently helped put down new pavement to give a landing spot for more cargo, easing supply chain disruptions.

“Baltimore by its geographic location is already a smart move,” said Aaron Tomarchio, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Tradepoint Atlantic, in an email. “However, the tunnel limitations held the port back from fully capitalizing on our geographic location.”

Tomarchio said that double-stacked freight trains will make Baltimore a more attractive port to shippers that have their sights set on Midwest markets, and will help make Tradepoint Atlantic “one of the most unique multi-modal logistics facilities in the country.”

The 23 locations between Baltimore and Philadelphia were split into 10 construction projects, with the first breaking ground in 2022; the Baltimore work includes five different construction packages. Contracts to replace bridges at Guilford Avenue and Harford Road have yet to be awarded, according to a CSX spokesperson.

A joint venture between Skanska, in the news recently for cleaning up one bridge disaster but causing another years earlier, and Fay S&B USA won the $293 million contract for work focused on the Howard Street Tunnel itself. Crews will do a combination of track lowering and modifying the upper arches of the tunnel walls to achieve the necessary clearance.

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CSX will have to stop traffic in the single bore tunnel to allow crews to work.

Sheriee Bowman, senior manager for media relations at CSX, said that major construction will begin this summer and that the ongoing port shutdown shouldn’t affect the project schedule. “CSX will leverage the most effective track outage scenarios to allow the work to progress as quickly as possible, while maintaining reliable, efficient service for our customers,” she wrote in an email.

CSX owns a little more than half of Maryland’s 886 miles of railroad. They are one of two freight rail companies that operate in the state considered Class I — the highest revenue-generating companies in the business — of which there are just six in the United States.

Coal, minerals and chemicals are the three highest-volume commodities moved on Maryland’s rails, according to the state’s 2022 Rail Plan, but coal is the clear frontrunner. In 2019 alone, freight trains brought more than 23 million tons of coal — enough to fit into 197,500 rail cars — into the state.

CSX ships coal out of the Port of Baltimore from its Curtis Bay facility. The company also helps move some coal to the Consol Marine Terminal, as does Maryland’s other Class I railroad, Norfolk Southern. The two facilities have turned the Port of Baltimore into the second-largest exporter of coal in the United States.

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The volume of chemicals that move on Maryland rails — more than a million tons in 2019 — has long been a source of concern for some in the community. Though freight rail is often considered the safest way to transport hazardous materials, Maryland has seen its share of high-profile incidents. Between 2013 and 2022, there were 24 hazmat train incidents in the state, according to WJZ.

The most high-profile incident was the July 2001 chemical fire that raged underneath Baltimore after multiple CSX rail cars derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel. A rail car carrying tripropylene, a flammable liquid used in paint, ink and other substances, was punctured and the leaked liquid ignited.

The National Transportation Safety Board could not find convincing evidence of what caused the derailment.

The disaster sparked calls for rerouting hazardous materials away from Baltimore’s downtown, an idea that CSX and Norfolk Southern officials called impractical, The Baltimore Sun reported in 2001. In response, the Federal Railroad Administration conducted two separate analyses exploring possible rerouting options that included building new freight tunnels in other nearby locations. They were ultimately dismissed over concerns about high costs and disruptions to the surrounding environment.

In an emailed statement, the office of Mayor Brandon Scott said that safety is an “absolute top concern” with the expansion project. “We are confident necessary design considerations will be made as CSX, the US Department of Transportation, the State of Maryland, and the City continue to partner on this project. Overall, the Howard Street Tunnel is extremely important to Baltimore and will positively impact the entire city in the long-run.”

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The recent derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, of a Norfolk Southern train and the resulting environmental disaster brought this and other rail safety issues back into the public eye.

Laura Amlie of Residents Against the Tunnels, whose group has been fighting plans for the new Amtrak tunnel, sent an eight-page letter to the Federal Railroad Administration and Maryland Port Administration in 2021 expressing concerns over what she considers low levels of scrutiny for the Howard Street program.

With the help of the University of Maryland’s Environmental Law Clinic, she questioned why officials chose to pursue an environmental assessment for the project and not an environmental impact statement, a more thorough study of the impacts of a given project.

The assessment raises no major environmental concerns, but does say that frequent flooding threatens the tunnel’s reliability. Despite the tunnel’s age, the assessment says that it still has “many years of useful life.”

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for the The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America. He is a Baltimore area native and graduated with his master's degree in journalism from American University in 2021. He is bilingual in English and Spanish and previously covered immigration issues.

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