Poor Communication Hampered Baltimore Tunnel Response

Wed January 26, 2005 - Northeast Edition

BALTIMORE (AP) Poor record keeping by Baltimore and CSX Corp. coupled with lack of communication between the city and the railroad worsened a dangerous situation when a freight train derailed in the Howard Street tunnel in 2001, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Wednesday, Jan. 5.

The NTSB made safety recommendations to Baltimore and CSX, including better exchange of information on maintenance and construction information in and around the tunnel.

The board requested that the city and the railroad respond to the agency within 90 days on how they intend to address the issues raised.

The letters only touched on the suspected cause of the accident, which is the subject of litigation.

On July 18, 2001, 11 cars of a 60-car train, including tankers containing toxic acids, derailed inside the tunnel that runs under the city’s central business district.

A tanker carrying tripropylene was punctured and the chemical caught fire. Around that same time, a 40-in. water main directly above the tunnel ruptured, sending water into the tunnel, collapsing several city streets and flooding nearby buildings.

The damage shut down the city for days, postponing baseball games, causing millions of dollars in damage to businesses and forcing the city to pay overtime for emergency crews and cleanup.

In July 2004, Baltimore sued CSX, charging the company was responsible for the incident. The city is seeking $10 million for fighting the five-day fire and repairing a broken water main.

In letters to Baltimore and CSX, the NTSB said although it could not determine the cause of the accident, “the most likely scenario that could have resulted in the derailment involved an obstruction between a car wheel and the rail, in combination with changes in track geometry.”

But the letters pointed to lack of critical information from both Baltimore and CSX concerning the tunnel, including a partially repaired “void” in the tunnel’s arch that “neither CSX nor the city of Baltimore knew of or had documentation about when the void was first discovered or who had initiated the repair.”

Baltimore’s emergency preparedness plans were found to be lacking, the report said, saying city documents do not have procedures for dealing with hazardous materials discharge in the Howard Street tunnel.

Baltimore City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said. “They’ve made some very significant findings about CSX’s failure to maintain records, explicitly finding that the water main broke in the hours following the accident which effectively eliminates one of CSX’s arguments that it broke and caused the derailment.

“Overall, these are important and helpful in the city’s litigation against CSX.”

But CSX spokesman Robert Sullivan said that “the derailment was caused by events beyond the control of the railroad.

“CSX believes its records are well kept. We were able to provide investigators with records of most recent inspections, which showed that the track was in good condition.”

Sullivan added, “One of the key lessons [from the incident] was the ability of the city and CSX to join in common cause to attack and resolve a situation with the public safety foremost in mind without regard for turf or other issues.”