Technical hurdles as CSX pushes towards intermodal growth with No U.S. Master Rail Plan

An 11 year plan. 7 years just to get permitting and financing in place. ====================

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Washington DC. is a $400 million project. CSX broke ground on in May.

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel is a critical project in the CSX broader $850 million National Gateway initiative. It is a public-private partnership between CSX, six states and the nation’s capital city. National Gateway is in effect a multiphase, 11-year undertaking to move more freight by rail between selective East Coast ports and the Midwest states. CSX is the plan developer and leading champion.

The entire Gateway Project involves double-tracking some CSX existing routes and increasing the vertical clearance for some tunnels and bridges. A CNBC report by Morgan Brennan for CNBC points out that seven of those years have been dedicated to permitting and complying with regulations. (@MorganLBrennan)

Interestingly, this is a private rail company strategic plan. The government agencies are helping finance and modify or delay the project with regulations and permits. But the government is not the leader.

WHY? CSX is looking to quadruple its rail freight carrying capacity in the 110-year-old single-lane Virginia freight rail tunnel. The tunnel is about one mile long underneath part of the city of Washington, D.C. Technically, a second parallel track will be added to allow two trains to pass at the same time. The vertical clearance height will also be increased to allow for double stacked container trains. To increase the vertical height, the tracks will actually be lowered. Today, CSX trains are restricted to the less efficient single-level intermodal train operations.

A change to double stack can have a 35% or better productivity. Reports indicate that the most challenging part of this engineering feat will be to construct these changes while the tunnel continues to allow some two dozen trains to pass per day.

The entire $850 million National Gateway initiative mirrors a similar bold move completed earlier by the Norfolk Southern for 1) its Norfolk to Ohio double stack corridor project and 2) its Shenandoah Corridor public-private partnership plan.

IN CONTRAST

In much of the rest of the world, these kind of plans are created by the government. In the U.S. business model, it is the reverse process. Private investor lead companies are the lead champions.

The entire North American double stack container train revolution was initiated in 1983 by a commercial deal between American Presidents Lines the ocean carrier and the Union Pacific railroad. Later on, various state and local governments joined in with the private railroads to expand the stack train network.

The federal government has also gotten involved. But there is no giant federal and state government master plan at work. And yet, more than 20% of the U.S. network is today stack capable.

Even without a government master plan, the United States (and Canada) are the world leaders in modern doublestack container train movements.

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