Work resumes on historic rail tunnel

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(Host) Work resumed last week on the final phase of renovations to the historic Bellows Falls Rail Tunnel.

The century-and-a-half-old tunnel is being “lowered” to create more headroom for modern rail traffic.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) It’s a fact of life in Bellows Falls that the railroad runs under part of the red brick village center. It passes beneath the Hotel Windham, under Bridge Street, and under the corner building that now houses Joanna’s Glamorama Hair Salon.

The Tunnel the trains run through is a one-track-wide, self-supporting dry stone arch cobbled together when the railroad came in 1851.

Rockingham Development Director Richard Ewald says topography, and an already thriving village — forced the railroad underground.

(Ewald) “There’s the Connecticut River, there’s the canal and there’s the downtown. And there’s ledge underneath. So they had to purchase a right-of-way underneath some of the buildings. And they blasted through the ledge as much as they needed to at the time and constructed this incredible 280-foot-long continuous stone arch that is, it’s really a thing to behold.”

(Keese) The tunnel is just wide enough for modern freight cars. But it’s become a bottleneck for newer, taller shipments now traveling between Canada and the rest of New England.

Ordinarily the problem would be solved by building a new, poured concrete tunnel. But because this tunnel is on the National Register of Historic Places, crews are digging a couple of feet down to create more headroom.

(Hugh Strobel) “The railroad needs to have this just to be able to accommodate the kind of traffic the industry demands nowadays, which is the container cars and the automobile carrying cars.”

(Keese) Hugh Strobel of ECI Rail constructors of South Burlington is the site foreman for the project.

The sound behind him is heavy equipment leaving the tunnel in time for the midday Southbound Amtrak Vermonter.

(Strobel) “Amtrak 110 South permission to pass through form B limits.”

(Keese) New England Central Railroad, which owns the track, is running its freight trains at night to accommodate the work. But Strobel says the twice daily passenger trains need to keep on schedule.

(Strobel) “Which means in most cases we have to take out a section of track, excavate down to the level we need to do the work, put it all back together before noontime to allow Amtrak to go through and then take it apart in the afternoon and then repeat the process in the late afternoon.”

(Tunnel 05 Radio) “Okay Roger, if I understand that correctly Foreman Stroble, it’s okay for Amtrak train 55 engine 110 south. All men and equipment are in the clear. There’s no speed restrictions. Is that correct, over?”
(Strobel) “That is a Roger sir. Okay thank you, Strobel out.”

(Keese) Strobel says the track has been temporarily segmented into smaller sections to allow the piecemeal work to happen. Crews worked from September until the ground froze blasting away rock and installing metal struts and piles beneath the rail bed.

The two million dollar project is funded by a federal transportation earmark, with a twenty percent match from the state.

Strobel says work should be finished sometime in July.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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