Fort Worth

January 7, 2014

Tower 55 railroad project on track to end in September

New tracks, bridges and other improvements near downtown Fort Worth are part of a $104 million project to relieve rail congestion.

Noble Reed spent many of his 73 years living just a few hundred feet from the railroad tracks heading north out of downtown Fort Worth, and he’s so accustomed to train horns that he easily blocks out the noise.

“It’s amazing how the human body and mind can separate sounds,” said Reed, president of the Greenway Neighborhood Association, which represents a cluster of homes just north of downtown and west of Interstate 35W.

Reed and other residents of Greenway and also the Rock Island/Samuels Avenue area for years have endured freight train congestion just outside their doors. In one area near Nash Elementary School, children sometimes crawled under the trains, which would block intersections for long periods, to get to school.

But a sweeping $104 million project to relieve that congestion is progressing quickly, railroad officials say. The so-called Tower 55 project, named for the famously busy railroad intersection in the shadow of the I-35W/I-30 Mixmaster, is on course to be completed by September, a spokesman said Tuesday.

It’s being paid for with a combination of funds, including a $34 million federal transportation grant and contributions from Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway.

“It truly is a collaboration,” said Joseph Faust, spokesman for Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway.

The railroads were criticized for years for allowing trains to block intersections — sometimes for an hour or more — making it hard for residents in the small pockets of neighborhoods within the web of the tracks to get in and out. But more recently, Reed said, the railroads and city officials have been helpful and have tried to keep people informed of construction progress.

“We have been fortunate enough to communicate with them. They have come to some of our meetings,” said Reed, who grew up in the Greenway neighborhood from 1945 to 1958 before leaving home for college. He then returned in 1991 to live in the home that his parents never left.

“I can recall only one day [when] the bridge at Cold Springs Road was closed,” he said, citing recent construction progress. “Other than that, it hasn’t really hampered through traffic.”

Railroad renaissance

The investment in Tower 55 comes as many of the nation’s railroads, including Union Pacific and BNSF, are in the midst of a freight-hauling renaissance.

BNSF said last year that it planned to spend $240 million on maintenance and capacity projects just in Texas, including Tower 55. The company is also planning to expand its headquarters along Western Center Boulevard in far north Fort Worth.

Tower 55 is at the intersection of four railroad tracks that collectively handle about 90 train crossings a day, making it one of the busiest rail confluences in the United States. The two east-west tracks are owned by Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific. One north-south track is also owned by Union Pacific, and the other is owned by BNSF.

The Tower 55 project includes construction of a third north-south line, owned by BNSF. The new track will add 9,000 feet of capacity, which should reduce the time intersections are blocked by trains along surrounding streets, officials have said.

Several pedestrian crossings are also scheduled to be enhanced.

In September 2011, then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Fort Worth to sign documents and ceremoniously kick off the Tower 55 work, although dirt didn’t actually fly until last year.

Officials from both railroads have said the improvements should give them enough room for about 10 years’ worth of business growth and expansion.

Honking horns

This week, crews can be seen working on or near the railroad bridge over East Lancaster Avenue near downtown Fort Worth. They are clearing space to lay the new north-south line, said Raquel Espinoza, a Union Pacific spokeswoman.

South of downtown, much of the new north-south line is already in place, its shiny new rails and concrete ties visible to passers-by on the Hattie Street overpass.

Work is also progressing north of downtown, Espinoza said.

“Crews are also doing grading for a bridge off of Cold Springs Road,” she said in an email.

Reed said he looks forward to the end of the construction. Since the work began last year, trains have been sounding their horns more than usual to alert workers in the area, he said.

“They’re short bursts of sounds,” he said.

“The only thing about the Tower 55 project is, it might mean more train traffic coming through here,” he said, laughing. “But I’ve lived here so long I’ve learned to ignore the sounds.”

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