Frederick Douglass Tunnel

Frederick Douglass Tunnel on Open Street Maps

So president Biden announced a 16.4 billion USD program to modernise the US Northeast Corridor. While the Acela express can in theory go pretty fast (up to 240 Km/h), the actual tracks actually limit that speed, so improving the tracks makes plenty of sense, but 16 billions is a lot of money, that’s more than the cost of the Gotthard base tunnel (~12 billions).

The White House factsheet lists five major projects, the most expensive is the Gateway Hudson River Tunnel, which goes under the river in New York, the second most expensive is the , with a total price tag of 6 billions, 4.7 of which come from this new program. As I never heard of this tunnel before, I got curious.

The information page of Amtrak is pretty short in information, the new tunnel runs north of the existing one, has two high capacity tubes, one station, West Baltimore MARC will be renewed and be accessible for people with disabilities. The graphic on the page shows two tubes with single tracks in them. Given the budget of the project, I was expecting a slightly richer information page, with some facts, as the fact-sheet, is actually pretty short, on, well facts.

There is a FAQ, which explains that the project went from four tubes to two, I suppose this is why they are now labelled as high capacity, according to the FAQ, this simplification saved 1 billion, so the project was actually 7 billions? Checking on open railway map still shows the 4 track / tubes version. The old tunnel was 1.4 miles (2.25 Km), the new one is a big longer, probably not more than four kilometres.

How expensive is this project? In 2014, the Swiss Federal Railways built the Weinberg tunnel, adding two tracks between the Zürich main station and the Oerlikon station, with a total length of 4.8 kilometres (~3 US miles). The Weinberg tunnel cost 2 billion Swiss francs, so around 2.2 BUSD at the current exchange rate (inflation in Switzerland for these 10 years is around 3%). That’s a third of the price of the Frederick Douglass tunnel, in a country where the median yearly salary is around 88K USD.

Can the two tunnels be compared? Both are built inside cities with historic buildings. The Frederick Douglass passes under a subway track, the Weinberg tunnel passes under another train track. The Weinberg tunnel also passes under the Limmat river and the old town and is fully underground at one end (Zürich HB), the location of the western entrance of the Frederick Douglass seems to be occupied by some industrial area, with railway spurs connecting to the Hanover division.

There are technical differences, the Weinberg is a single tube, double track tunnel with a speed limit of 120 km/h (~75 MpH) whereas the Frederick Douglass tunnel is supposed to be a two single track tubes that allow speeds up to ~180 km/h (110 MpH). Why such a high speed needed on the approach to a the Baltimore station, which is limited to 30 MpH and where trains will probably stop, I don’t know, but by Swiss standards, this seems a very expensive project…

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