Project to Increase Norfolk Southern Tunnel Height a Study in Safety | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Norfolk Southern has spent many years upgrading its tracks, rolling stock and other infrastructure in order to speed up and reduce costs for moving freight between its main yards in Norfolk and Chicago. The final stage in completing the redesign and expansion of what NS has dubbed its Heartland Corridor is increasing the height of tunnels through southwestern Virginia (VA) and West Virginia (WV) to 21 feet, which will allow passage of double-stack shipping containers–the trailer part of 18-wheelers.

An in-depth description of the nearly finished work to, literally, raise the roof of a 100-year-old railway tunnel just outside of Charleston, WV, ran in last Sunday’s Charleston Daily Mail. What made the feature particularly interesting was the author’s focus on the measures taken during the roof-raising project’s planning and execution to ensure the safety of construction and train crews.

George Hohmann described the placement of load-bearing bolts to prevent cave-ins, the operation of fans to remove rock dust, even how NS planners chose the target tunnel height to permit a clearance margin of 9 inches. The tunnel Hohmann visited, Big Sandy 1, has seen only a single minor rockslide since work there began in 2008, and no one was injured in that incident.

At least one death has occurred during tunnel work along the Heartland Corridor, however. And that accidental death in which a man operating a excavator was buried in a partial roof collapse points to exactly why safety needs to be a primary concern during any project to build or modernize rail tunnels. As Hohmann notes in his article, tunnels are pitch-black places where air does not circulate and where thousands of tons of rock can come crashing down unless the most thorough precautions are taken.

For trains, old tunnels that are even an inch too narrow or too low to accommodate modern equipment can lead to tragedies or city-threatening accidents such as the CSX chemical spill and fire in Baltimore in 2001. Then, working in tunnels is particularly difficult for firefighters and other emergency services personnel. The extra space NS is building into its upgraded Heartland Corridor tunnels is essential to improving the timeliness and quality of any, hopefully unneeded, rescue efforts.

As a FELA attorney representing NS workers who are hurt on the job, I will tell you that the railroad is still a very dangerous place to work, even though some improvements have been made in recent years. One way that big railroads keep the number of reported injuries down is to pressure employees not to make official reports, which have to go to the Federal Railroad Administration. Likewise , railroaders are intimidated into not getting medical care unless the work accident cut their arm off or did something as bad or worse. Once a young , inexperienced guy has agreed not to officially notify the supervisor of an injury, then the company has him because if he later says “I was hurt,” then the company will say, “You violated the rules by not reporting it in a timely fashion.” Next, the company will conduct an internal investigation and punish the worker on that basis. This game goes on regularly as the carriers fight for the coveted Harriman safety award.