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June 08, 2011

Chaos and NextGen: Panama Canal, Train Tunnels, Concrete vs Satellites

There's a gross over-simplification of chaos theory that goes: a butterfly flaps its wings in Africa, the monsoons run late in India, and we get tornadoes in Joplin.

We assume that the butterflies are benign, just like the birds are.

The National Gateway railroad project shows similar inter-dependencies and conditional sensitivity, and to me it carries interesting points about the NextGen aviation proposal and project management.

The Panama Canal is a money-maker. As shipping between Asia/China and the United States has increased, the number of ships trying to move materiel to the US East Coast has exceeded the capacity of the Panama Canal (which is fixed in terms of ship size, ships per hour, etc). Demand exceeds supply, costs go up, schedules slip, China looks for another path and starts sending more and more ships to the West Coast.

As the shipping business and the money moved away from the Panama Canal and toward West Coast docks and transcontinental train lines, the Canal people said 'Wait we want that money! We're going to widen the Canal, so really big ships can come through.'

When the train people found out that the Canal people were going lateral, they looked at their capability to handle the new volume and realized that the train structure can't handle it. The railroad solution was to go vertical and run double-height trains on the legacy tracks, doubling the railroad capacity.

But wait; the railroads have a problem. It's easy to run double-height trains in the open air, but it's impossible to run double-height trains through some of the oldest legacy tunnels, which were built in difficult situations to single-height train specs.

The railroads have embarked on a program to make their tunnels taller. Sometimes they raise the roof, sometimes they lower the floor. It's a huge effort called the National Gateway.



This summer in Pittsburgh's Southside Works, the "tunnel park" shown in the photo above (where the CSX train tunnel runs under the grass) will be excavated, raised, and rebuilt, as explained by the Post-Gazette's most excellent Larry Walsh:
The Panama Canal is nearly 2,200 miles from Pittsburgh, but ripples from a $5.25 billion canal expansion will be felt here... when construction crews are expected to excavate the grassy strip in SouthSide Works known as Tunnel Park. There's a railroad tunnel down there, and CSX Transportation wants to raise the roof on it.

They hope to finish the work by 2015, when bigger ships that will be able to use the expanded Panama Canal will start plying East Coast ports, including Philadelphia, generating more demand for trains to move goods in the East and Midwest.



I found another unexpected impact of the Panama Canal project last week when I was riding the bicycle trail from Confluence to Rockwood, near a place called Pinkerton PA. Let's look at the Pinkerton Horn, and the train tracks and tunnels that run through the mountain there.

This map shows the curve of the Cassellman River, which gives the Pinkerton Horn its shape, and the path of the original train line and tunnel:

This map shows the location of the current CSX train tracks and tunnel, which allowed the railroad to abandon the old tracks and problematic tunnel.

This map shows how the original train bed was used for the GAP bike trail, and how the trail circumnavigates the Pinkerton Horn because of the tremendous expense of rehabilitating the closed, legacy tunnel:

Daylighting the Pinkerton Tunnel

The double-height trains won't be able to fit in the Pinkerton Tunnel. Because of the geology, the railroad has decided to "daylight" the train tracks that run through the mountain, which means they'll remove all the earth above the tracks until daylight shines down upon them. (click for project details) It's a huge amount of material. In order to accomplish this, the railroad has chosen to cut down all the trees above the bike trail.

This map shows where the mountain will be cut away over the new train line, "daylighting" the tracks and permitting double-height train cars. It also shows the central area in which the trees are being cut down along the top of the ridge.

This photo from last week shows the bike trail at the west portal of the old closed tunnel, and the deforestation above the trail detour.

A Project Management Perspective

From a project management perspective, I think about all the times I've tried to get something done and run into "You can't do that, because yada yada yada". These transportation engineers run into constraints and say, hey let's just remove that mountain. Wow, just wow. I'd like to have some of that mojo.

A NextGen Perspective

NextGen is industry's proposed satellite-based aviation system.
The Panama Canal:
  • From a Theory of Constraints perspective, the Panama Canal is the constraining factor in shipping between Asia and the East Coast.
  • In a curious NextGen analogy, once again we see that capacity is about the constraint, and the constraint is concrete.
  • You could give all those ships brand new GPS units, but it wouldn't increase capacity at all.

The Railroads:
  • The capacity constraint was the tunnels (concrete)
  • giving those trains updated satellite links won't do a thing to increase capacity

It's all about the concrete.


Paul Heckbert said...

Nice summary.

There's been discussion of the Pinkerton Horn tunnel daylighting on the

In July 2012 I photographed the dig and clear-cut:

gigapan panorama from the top of the cut (vertigo-inducing!)

360 degree gigapan from higher

gigapan from high bridge

in the cut

In November 2011 I sent this to the group:

From: Paul Heckbert
Date: 2011/11/22 11:34:36 AM EST
Cc: Paul Heckbert
Subject: massive excavation at Pinkerton Horn

I've been speaking with others and reading about the Pinkerton project, between Confluence and Rockwood, and I have learned:

"The National Gateway Clearance Initiative is an improvement program to achieve a minimum of 21 feet of clearance along CSX Transportation Inc’s (CSX) rail corridor so that double-stacked intermodal railcars can be transported between Mid-Atlantic States and their ports to Midwest markets."

which is a quote from the Sept. 2010 document

Environmental Assessment ... National Gateway Clearance Initiative

The CSX railroad is also widening its railbed. The current CSX tunnel at Pinkerton Horn is wide enough for one track, only. The original proposal was to widen the tunnel and raise its ceiling (called "total arch liner replacement"). That was the proposal with which CSX sold the project to Somerset County. But by the time of this Environmental Assessment, it appears the proposal for Pinkerton Horn had morphed, since this document says:

"At Pinkerton Tunnel, the original recommendation was a total arch liner replacement and mining of the sidewalls. However, based on subsequent geotechnical studies, which indicate that the overlying rock is of poor quality, open-cutting is also being evaluated."

And daylighting is what was ultimately approved. Other tunnels elsewhere along the CSX railroad are being daylighted, also, and the rock spoil from those sites will be trucked to Pinkerton Horn for dumping. To get it there, the trucks will drive to Markleton (a few miles upstream of Pinkerton Horn) and then drive the gravel service road along the railroad to the spot just upstream of the horn near the Pinkerton Low Bridge, they'll cross the CSX track there, and climb the steep road visible in to the top of the ridge, where they'll dump their loads. The excavation of the hillside in this picture is for railbed widening.

It sounds like CSX pulled a bait-and-switch (sell the public on a tunnel enlargement, then grow it into a much bigger open-cutting / daylighting project), and Somerset County government was negligent in reviewing the change in proposal.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Assessment concludes, regarding open-cutting for the National Gateway Clearance Initiative, that

"Although open cutting will create a change in the visual character of the area, these activities are proposed in remote locations that are not viewable by the general public. There is very limited opportunity for these changes to have an effect on the public."

This document does not mention Pinkerton Horn as one of the possible "Excess Material Disposal Areas"!

[continued in next comment]

Paul Heckbert said...

[continued from previous comment]

And this document of Nov. 2010

National Gateway Clearance Initiative ... Finding of No Significant Impact

concludes that

"The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in collaboration with the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland and CSX Transportation,Inc.(CSX) have determined that the Phase I National Gateway Clearance Initiative will have no significant adverse impact on the human or natural environments."

Good to know. :-(

It's sad to see the forest clearcut, the bear dens disturbed, and erosion problems develop, if much of this was avoidable. If the top of Pinkerton Horn is treated like a strip mine, as it appears, and rock spoil is piled 40' deep there, as predicted, it will take many decades for a healthy forest to regrow there.


Subject: panoramic photos of excavation/daylighting at Pinkerton Horn
Posted by: "Paul Heckbert" paulheckbert
Mon Nov 14, 2011 3:24 pm (PST)

view from upstream side of the horn, November:

view from high bridge, November:

view from high bridge, October, when it was less scarred:

ebtrr said...

Just some clarification on your history. The "old" and "new" lines are not that. They were the rail lines of competing railroad companies, the Baltimore and Ohio on the north and the Western Maryland on the south. The WM was not completed until 1907, the B&O line was sometime prior to 1871 and so was in fact much older. That older line is the one still running as CSX. In 1968 the C&O and the B&O acquired control of the WM and by the 1990s abandoned most of the WM. The lines ran at the same time for most of their existence but one was abandoned due to corporate mergers.

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