$8M federal grant to help reduce bottlenecks for Baltimore train commuters
Ethan McLeod, Baltimore Business Journal
A project to increase speeds for Amtrak and MARC trains currently slowed by aging rail infrastructure in Baltimore is getting a boost from an $8 million Federal Railroad Administration grant.
The money, announced Wednesday by the agency, will help to rehabilitate and upgrade a five-mile section of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and allow trains to travel 50% faster, up from 60 mph to 90 mph. The improvements will take place between the north end of West Baltimore Station to Winans at the southern end of Halethorpe station, which serves both MARC and Amtrak trains.
The work will include replacing deteriorated timber rail ties with concrete, installing heavier rail and laying new track ballast, which holds the track in place beneath moving trains.
Amtrak said in an announcement that the work, when complete, will make for shortened trip times, improved ride quality and better operational flexibility, and allow for high-speed trains to run on all four tracks of the five-mile stretch.
Amtrak spokesperson Beth Toll said the railroad operator expects the work to take about three years.
Members of Maryland's Congressional delegation, which sent a letter of support for the project to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in December, said in a statement Thursday that the improvements "will help better ensure Amtrak’s safety and efficiency while also encouraging economic development in the area."
“We were proud to fight for this funding and will continue working to secure federal investments in Amtrak to ensure it can weather COVID-19, continue serving and employing our residents, and drive economic opportunity to our state," said the delegation, which includes U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and the recently elected Kweisi Mfume.
The Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Transit Administration were joint applicants for the $8 million grant. In a statement to the BBJ, the MTA said the coming upgrades "will increase ride quality for MARC trains while minimizing delays due to track congestion," particularly for northbound MARC Penn Line trains that use one of the tracks to access MARC stops.
The agency also said improvements reducing Penn Line delays will in turn "allow for greater overall flexibility" for passengers using multiple modes of transit, and will allow the bus transfer hub at West Baltimore Station to become "an even more attractive transit option for multi-mode users."
Upgrading those tracks in Baltimore is part of the five-year capital plan from the Northeast Corridor Commission, a multi-state and public-private body created by Congress in 2008 to modernize the Northeast Corridor rail system.
Amtrak said the project will also allow for ongoing train service while other tracks stop operating to “allow support for construction elements of the B&P Tunnel Replacement project.”
The Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel dates back to 1873 and runs 1.4 miles from West Baltimore Station to Penn Station. A new B&P Tunnel has been in the works for years but does not have funding. The project would take 12 to 15 years and had an estimated price tag of $4.5 billion in 2017, when the FRA issued a record of decision for a new four-track tunnel to replace the current one.
In the meantime, Amtrak this winter announced a series of steps to rehabilitate the B&P Tunnel as-is.
Amtrak is also investing into improvements at Penn Station, Baltimore's central train hub, with $90 million being spent to modernize and expand the station to serve more passengers and allow for new Acela trains.
A team of developers, architects, engineers and others is separately working on an overhaul of Penn Station, though the partners have appealed for more money from local, state and private sources. Opportunity zone investors also recently pledged an undisclosed amount of funding for their project.