Initial work underway on Tower 55 rail project

Posted Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The long wait for a solution to Fort Worth's freight rail congestion problems is nearly over.

Railroad workers are ramping up their construction of the Tower 55 project -- a $104 million plan to improve tracks just southeast of downtown Fort Worth, fix pedestrian crossings and unclog street crossings where trains are often stalled for long periods.

Some preliminary work is already taking place, and full-blown construction is expected to begin in a matter of weeks, officials said. The project is scheduled for completion in late 2014.

"Dirt has started to fly out there. They're doing some cleaning and grubbing out there, and they've already started cutting the trees," said Bill Glavin, Texas Department of Transportation rail director.

North Texans have fought for the project, which is in the shadow of the Interstate 30/35W Mixmaster, for nearly a decade. Idling, diesel-burning trains are blamed for a portion of the region's air-quality problems, and city officials became alarmed several years ago after children in the Rock Island/Samuels Avenue area just north of downtown got into the habit of crawling under idling trains to get from their neighborhoods to classes at Nash Elementary School.

Tower 55 is the name of a railroad intersection of four railroad tracks that on busy days collectively handle about 90 train crossings. Two parallel east-west tracks are both owned by Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Railroad, and the two north-south tracks are owned by Union Pacific and Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway.

The plan, which includes funding from the U.S. Transportation Department and both railroads, involves adding a third north-south rail line.

In all, an extra 9,000 feet of tracks will be added in the area so fewer trains have to park at crossings.

Increased capacity

Railroad officials said the improvements should buy them enough capacity to handle at least 10 years of growth. That's important because the U.S. railroad industry is currently in the midst of a business boom, with trains hauling increased imports from Asia as well as oil from shale plays in places such as North Dakota that lack pipelines.

Also, with fuel prices remaining high, more shippers are turning to railroads instead of long-distance trucks.

For now the preliminary construction work on Tower 55 is taking place in just a few spots, mostly north of downtown and west of I-35W, said BNSF Railway spokesman Steven Forsberg.

"Construction started on April 20. We are clearing and grubbing in the areas north of Peach Street," Forsberg said in an email. "They are getting ready to begin embankment placing next week."

In September 2011, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Fort Worth to sign documents and begin the Tower 55 work. At the time, the work was scheduled to begin in April 2012 and be completed by 2014.

Negotiations between the two railroads over various responsibilities for the project took longer than expected, but the work can still be completed by December 2014, Glavin said.

Union Pacific officials declined repeated requests for information about that company's portion of the Tower 55 project.

A long time coming

Federal and local officials also are planning to relieve freight rail congestion by moving the Amtrak passenger rail service between downtown Fort Worth and Dallas out of the Tower 55 area. Instead, the idea would be to move Amtrak over to the Trinity Railway Express line that connects Fort Worth and Dallas -- and officials say they're close to finalizing that plan.

The Tower 55 project is a key component of the effort to expand passenger rail service between Texas and Oklahoma, said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates.

A planning process known as the Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014, he said. That's about the same time the Tower 55 project is scheduled to wrap up.

"This would give us the full picture of what we need to do to improve rail service along or near the I-35 corridor from the Red River down to the Valley," LeCody said. "It's been an awful long time coming."

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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