Amtrak Hopes Infrastructure Bill Will Help Fund a Tunnel to Ease Delays on Northeast Corridor

BALTIMORE—When the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad completed its 1.4-mile tunnel in 1873, a local newspaper hailed it as “one of the greatest enterprises of the kind that has ever been executed.”


Today, it is Amtrak’s worst bottleneck on its most-traveled corridor between Washington and New Jersey. The passenger railroad plans to construct a new 2-mile tunnel several blocks away, and it is counting on funding in the roughly $1 trillion infrastructure bill to cover much of the project’s $4 billion tab.


House Democratic leadership has set an Oct. 31 deadline to pass the bill, which has become snagged in a broader debate among Democrats about the size of President Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion safety-net package.

The B&P Tunnel, Amtrak’s oldest, snakes under homes and businesses in West Baltimore and links Baltimore’s Penn Station with Washington’s Union Station. It causes delays for more than 10% of weekday trains on the line, and modernizing it isn’t viable, railroad officials say. Persistent water leaks require regular track repairs, including $71 million in fixes last year. During winter, workers use poles to knock icicles off the tunnel ceiling so they don’t freeze up the electric lines that power trains.


Trains could hit 100 mph in the new tunnel, up from 30 mph in the existing tunnel. A new tunnel would speed up MARC commuter trains between Baltimore and Washington to under 30 minutes, more than 15 minutes faster than current express service. Shorter rides would expand commuting options, state officials say.


A new tunnel also would improve reliability along the entire 457-mile Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, said Jeff Ensor, Amtrak’s senior director in charge of the south end of the corridor.


“This is really the time to make it happen,” he said.


Amtrak says the proposed tunnel, to be named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass, would be a prime candidate for some of the approximately $30 billion in the infrastructure bill for major projects, though the measure doesn’t earmark money for the tunnel replacement. Amtrak and Maryland plan to apply jointly to the U.S.

Department of Transportation for funding.


Maryland is in talks with Amtrak about the state’s share of the new tunnel’s cost. A third of the 150 trains that rumble through the tunnel each weekday belong to the state-run MARC, with Amtrak’s trains making up the bulk.


“We haven’t really arrived at a dollar figure in those negotiations, but Maryland is willing to be a really, really strong partner in building this project,” state Transportation Secretary Gregory Slater said.


Amtrak says the new tunnel would take 10 to 12 years to complete, with boring expected to start in 2026 and last six years. Officials say excavation work to prepare for massive, wormlike boring machines could begin within three years. The current tunnel would remain open afterward so four freight trains a week could continue using it.

The new tunnel itself would cost about $2.7 billion, Amtrak says. The rest of the $4 billion price tag would pay for improvements like a new commuter rail station in West Baltimore, new tracks and bridge replacements south of the tunnel.

For some train riders, the work can’t start soon enough. Avi Ali, a 20-year-old college student in Baltimore, noted the lumbering pace recently while riding through the tunnel toward Washington.

“We’re creeping along,” he said. “It is frustrating.”


Eric Goldwyn, an assistant professor of urban planning at New York University, said a new tunnel is likely needed, but he questioned the projected cost and construction timetable.


“At $1.35 billion a mile, that’s serious coin for a tunnel,” he said, adding that there are many examples around the world of tunnels being built “much more rapidly” than 2 miles over six years. “That’s a glacial pace.”


Some residents living over the proposed route say they want more analysis to ensure vibrations wouldn’t damage their brick homes, many more than a century old. Laura Amlie, president of a group lobbying against the tunnel, said she understands the need to fix the bottleneck but thinks the project poses too much risk and carries too high a price tag.


Preliminary engineering found that construction isn’t expected to damage any homes, Amtrak said, and it would work with property owners should damage occur. Mr. Ensor said the railroad would compensate owners of 500 to 600 properties for the right to tunnel underneath.


The B&P Tunnel was built between 1871 and 1873. About 1,000 feet was formed by workers hacking underground with pickaxes and shovels, aided by dynamite. Mostly it was open-cut, meaning crews dug a deep trench, built the tunnel, and then covered it with dirt.


A new tunnel would have a protective waterproofing liner to prevent leaks that corrode the rails. It would also add a ventilation system and escape walkways, Mr. Ensor said. The existing tunnel lacks those safety features, considered standard for modern tunnels, he said.


Rachel Chaikof, a 34-year-old project manager who recently was riding home to Virginia from an appointment in Baltimore, said the present tunnel’s lack of safety systems is alarming. “That’s a very scary thing,” she said.

This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal

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