AMTRAK has begun early construction work for the Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Tunnel Replacement Programme. The nearly 150-year-old, 2.25km-long tunnel on the Northeast Corridor between Baltimore’s Penn Station and Washington, DC, is a single point of failure for both Maryland Area Rail Commuter (Marc) and Amtrak inter-city services.

Amtrak says the tunnel, the oldest on its Amtrak network, suffers from a variety of problems such as excessive water infiltration, a deteriorating structure, and a sinking floor. There are no emergency fire safety systems, and maintenance costs are high.

The tunnel is at capacity, and its tight curvature requires trains to reduce speed to 50km/h. This creates serious delays, with more than 10% of trains delayed during the week.

Early construction work will include replacing aging timber sleepers with new concrete sleepers, installing new rail, and completing track drainage improvements in the Halethorpe and West Baltimore areas. The track and sleeper replacement work will take place overnight on Track A between Winans and Bridge and is not expected to disrupt passenger services.

Funded by a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) FY 2019 Federal-State Partnership for the State of Good Repair Programme, the upgrades will increase maximum line speed on all four tracks to 170km/h, Amtrak says. Completion is targeted for early this summer. Additional work to replace an existing turnout at Winans with a new high-speed turnout will be carried out in a future phase.

The B&P Tunnel Replacement Programme, conducted by Amtrak and the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transit Administration, involves the construction of a new tunnel for passenger trains, construction of which is due to take 10 years.

The new Frederick Douglass Tunnel, named after the 19th century Maryland-born abolitionist leader, will be used by Marc and Amtrak services.

The programme will also modernise a 6.4km section of the Northeast Corridor. Work includes installation of new road and rail bridges, new rail systems and track, and a new accessible West Baltimore Marc station. The existing B&P Tunnel will be retained for use by freight trains.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $US 6bn. The state of Maryland intends to commit $US 450m in construction funds which, when combined with Amtrak’s intended commitment of approximately $US 750m, will put the project closer to achieving full funding under the FRA’s Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail Grant Programme (FSP).