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Big Projects

Big Projects

Big Projects
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You’ll get an exclusive look at how railroading meets its biggest engineering and construction challenges. Learn how railroads build and expand bridges, tunnels, and rights-of-way to last for generations.

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United States
Kalmbach Publishing Co. - Magazines

in this issue

3 min.
big plans and big machines make big projects

WELCOME TO ‘BIG PROJECTS,’ our look at bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure undertakings that have changed the face of railroading. We also look at a few projects which are desperately needed, not just for their impact on the rail industry, or even transportation, but the U.S. economy as a whole. The projects in this magazine are, for the most part, epic in scope. They include the world’s longest railroad tunnel, a spectacular New York bridge built with great care to minimize the impact on a state park, and two significant capacity-improvement projects that unplugged bottlenecks on BNSF Railway’s Southern Transcon, a virtual conveyor belt for the U.S. import and export industries. There are also looks at two Northeast Corridor tunnels that were remarkable feats in their day, but have reached the end…

16 min.
the need to build

Great nations build. From the aqueducts of ancient Rome to the 19,000-mile high speed rail network of 21st-century China, flourishing economies make their mark in monuments of civil engineering. But in the United States, such projects have also become monuments to high costs and complex regulations, making them ever harder to complete—or even start. It has not always been this way. Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 began the great building era of the United States. Connecting Lake Erie with the Hudson River, it made New York City a center of world trade and spurred a canal construction boom that lasted until barges were outcompeted by wooden boxcars. Later that century, the transcontinental railroad set off a social revolution not seen again until the internet age more than 100 years later. Rail…

3 min.
the nimby factor

NOT IN MY BACKYARD. The unofficial rallying cry of opposition—to anything from low-cost housing to a railroad line—has made NIMBY a familiar acronym and led to the expectation that someone, somewhere, will oppose almost every effort to build or expand. Railroads and transit agencies are well aware that if financial and environmental considerations don’t slow their plans, NIMBYism often will. A 2018 New York Times article, “How ‘Not in My Backyard’ became ‘Not in My Neighborhood,’” by Emily Badger, traces the growth of the conviction that “owning a parcel of land gives [homeowners] a right to shape the world beyond its boundaries.” It cites factors including tax laws, integration, zoning, and the increased significance of housing as a financial asset. These led to what Dartmouth economist William Fischel called a concern over “remote…

12 min.
modern and spectacular

A visit to Letchworth State Park in western New York takes visitors into the shadows of one of today’s most visually documented railroad projects in the Northeast: Norfolk Southern’s Genesee Arch Bridge. At 963 feet long and 235 feet above the Upper Falls of the Genesee River, the modern arch viaduct spans a gorge steeped in history and abundant natural beauty. As early railroads expanded, and crossed uncharted terrains, getting from point A to point B was achieved in the most cost-effective manner, rarely considering the impact to nature. The new arch bridge’s construction, by contrast, is elaborate, eco-conscious, and sleek. It is built on an alignment 75 feet south of an older bridge dating to 1875, and is a single-track crossing with a ballast-filled concrete deck. The main span is a…

17 min.
on borrowed time

For most of the 110 years since the tunnels under the Hudson River were built by the Pennsylvania Railroad, they worked just fine. They were well planned, well engineered, and well constructed. Then events beyond the imagination of those who built the tunnels changed everything—making them the subject of an urgent effort to construct a replacement, as well as an ongoing political battle. The change came Oct. 29, 2012. Superstorm Sandy struck New Jersey and New York City, quickly flooding the tunnel’s twin tubes, with saltwater rising above the rails. The water coated the ballast with corrosive chlorides, damaged electrical and mechanical systems, and left cracks in concrete walls. The storm crippled a key part of the Northeast Corridor, a short but essential conduit that was already straining to handle the growing demands…

17 min.
california rising finally

It is impossible to drive into Fresno along Highway 99—the freeway that long has been the transportation backbone from Sacramento down California’s San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield—and not see evidence that something big is being built. Driving south from Madera, an agricultural burg that once was the terminus of a 63-mile log flume that brought logs down from Sierra Nevada forests to the railroad for shipment to lumber mills, you’ll cross the San Joaquin River. It’s impossible to miss the twin arches of a nearly mile-long viaduct on your immediate left that leaps the river and then the Union Pacific in a single bound. In downtown Fresno, UP is using a shoofly track while a grade-separation project on Tulare Street proceeds. South of the city, you’ll pass beneath the Cedar Viaduct,…