NORFOLK, Va. — Heavy machinery grinds away brick, concrete and solid rock as a railroad tunnel near Cowan, Va., gets its roof raised to accommodate taller trains.
This is the beginning of a three-year engineering project to increase intermodal freight capacity by raising vertical clearances in 28 tunnels on a Norfolk Southern rail line between the port of Hampton Roads, Va., and Chicago known as the Heartland Corridor. The first phase of the tunnel work began in October.
When the project is completed in early 2010, containerized freight moving in double-stack trains will be able to shave off about 200 miles and up to a day’s transit time between the East Coast and the Midwest. Currently, double- stack trains must take longer routes by way of Harrisburg, Pa., or Knoxville, Tenn. The Heartland Corridor goes across Virginia, through southern West Virginia and north through Columbus, Ohio.
“The Heartland Corridor is one of the most significant railroad engineering projects of modern times,” said Tim Drake, NS vice president engineering. “We’re excited to get started. We’re at the beginning of something big – a true partnership that will benefit the nation’s economy and create a competitive advantage for railroad shippers and receivers, our public partners and our communities.”
Stack trains require a minimum vertical clearance of 20 feet 9inches. The methods of increasing clearances vary from lowering track to notching corners into an arched roof to digging out and installing a new roof. In one case, the top of the tunnel may be removed altogether, turning the tunnel into a “cut,” a process known as “daylighting.”
Tunnel lengths range from 174 feet (the one to be daylighted at Big Four, W.Va.) to the Cowan Tunnel’s 3,302 feet.
In early 2008, work will have begun on three other tunnels in Virginia, near Eggleston and Pembroke, and eight tunnels along 11 miles of track in southern West Virginia between Antler and Gordon. The remaining tunnels, all in West Virginia (except for one in Kentucky), will be modified in two more phases, first proceeding eastward to Coopers, W. Va., then westward. In addition, overhead clearances will be increased on seven railroad bridges, three overhead bridges, three railway signals and three sets of overhead wires.
Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern trains continue to run through the corridor, serving coal and other customers in the region. Where practical, trains have been rerouted, permitting sections of track to be closed for 10 hours at a time, five days a week, for the next three years.
Norfolk Southern has formulated plans to minimize the impact of the construction on coal customers. Accurate and timely information about service changes and delays will be communicated throughout the construction period. Close communication and joint planning with customers on expected volumes and changes in coal sourcing also will enhance efforts as the project progresses.
Norfolk Southern, the states of Virginia, Ohio and West Virginia, and the federal government formed a public-private partnership to fund the project, which also includes new intermodal terminals in Columbus, Ohio, Prichard, W.Va., and the Roanoke, Va., region. The federal government has authorized $95 million toward the $151 million cost (estimated in 2005 dollars) of the tunnel clearances, and Virginia has authorized $22.35 million for terminal construction and clearances for the four tunnels within the state.
Earlier this year, West Virginia enacted new legislation to provide funding for rail intermodal projects, which will first be applied to the development of the terminal in Prichard. Ohio is contributing $836,355 for up to 95 percent of the costs of raising overhead obstruction clearances within the state.
Public funding has been made available because of the public benefits of the project. Double-stack container service will create economic development opportunities in those regions served by the corridor by providing economical access to world markets.
Improved intermodal capacity and service will divert freight from trucks off highways serving the corridor, with associated savings in highway construction and maintenance costs and reduced exhaust emissions and fuel consumption.