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Amid Disagreements, Pittsburgh Asks Railroad Company To Find New Plans For Taller Trains

Gene J. Puskar
A Norfolk and Southern locomotive pulls a train of tanker cars though Pittsburgh Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019.

A disagreement over allowing double-stack trains through the North Side and East End of Pittsburgh is growing heated.

The City of Pittsburgh announced Thursday it is asking Norfolk Southern Railroad to change their plans to elevate bridges in North Side neighborhoods, citing the historic nature of the area and the safety of residents and pedestrians.

Trains already pass through the route, but modifications to nine locations of bridges and tracks would be needed to let double-stack trains through. Norfolk Southern said allowing double stack trains through the route will enhance the efficiency of freight rail through Pennsylvania. It also said the projects will encourage job growth and contribute to national goals related to fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions.

Pittsburgh's Director of Mobility and Infrastructure Karina Ricks is alleging Norfolk Southern Railroad has been unresponsive to communications about proposals to modify the route to allow for double-stack trains; the railroad company alleged the same about the city.

Negotiations for one bridge in particular have been fraught. In 2018, Norfolk Southern submitted an application to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to rehabilitate the Merchant Street Bridge’s below-grade crossing. In the application to the PUC, Norfolk Southern said the project’s purpose was to enhance public safety, as the bridge was built in 1903 and steel in the structure has corroded.  

The city originally had no objections to the plan, but upon further review Ricks raised objections to the height clearance proposed.

“Given the growing importance of the North Side and North Shore districts as destination centers, traffic has increased substantially on Merchant Street,” Ricks said in a June 2018 letter to the PUC. “Related is a growing need for truck and bus access … which are currently precluded from Merchant Street because of the height restriction.”

A Feb. 20, 2019 letter reiterating this request was sent to the PUC by Assistant City Solicitor Anthony Bilan. The city also filed an official protest with the PUC.

Opponents of the plan say a sinkhole developed near the bridge earlier this month, prompting state Sen. Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) to ask the PUC to investigate if Norfolk Southern’s regular inspections are adequate.

“An inspection determined that some ballast [stone] had fallen through a small gap between the ends of two spans on the bridge,” said Norfolk Southern spokesperson Jonathan Glass in an email. “Engineering Department personnel sealed the gap using concrete and replaced the ballast.”

Glass said the company’s top priority is safe rail operations, and that the company’s engineering department has determined the bridge is structurally sound and safe for train operations.

Norfolk Southern has an existing route through Pittsburgh that accommodates double-stack cars, near Station Square. The company told WESA in January that it wants to reroute trains to areas less likely to experience landslides.

Some Pittsburgh residents have been vocal in their opposition to the plans to allow double-stack trains to pass through the route. Rail Pollution Protection Pittsburgh said its concerned about the aging Merchant Street Bridge. It alleges the amount of oil that would pass through Pittsburgh if the double stack trains are approved would be dangerous for residents should an accident occur.

“We have no confidence that the railroad is doing what it needs to do to keep the community safe,” said Barbara Talerico of RP3 in a statement.

Environmental activists say the plans will bring more rail traffic to areas already experiencing poor air quality, such as Braddock.

Glass said Norfolk Southern has no comment about the legal issues between the city and the company. However, he said an open house about the project held by Norfolk Southern in June 2018 was an example of the company's commitment to a transparent process. The company said it plans to hold two public meetings this year. The Breathe Project is also hosting two meetings on the issue next week.

“Norfolk Southern is conducting an environmental review of potential project impact that will include an analysis of alternatives,” Glass wrote. “This review is being done in accordance with PennDOT requirements.”

Norfolk Southern expects the review will be completed this summer.