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Friday, April 09, 2010

Revamped West Virginia tunnel open for larger loads

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The formidable Cooper Tunnel on the Norfolk Southern main line in Mercer County, W. Va., is now open for larger loads, opening another key impediment to the railway's ambitious Heartland Corridor project, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph reports.

The morning of Aril 8 was a transitional time as the prime contractor on the project, LRL Construction of Tillamook, Ore., as well as the engineering company, Jacobs Associates, finished early enough in the day to allow a group of local residents to walk through the normally busy tunnel.


"We worked from 2 a.m., to 12 noon, four days a week on this job," Michael Downs, LRL tunnel superintendent said as he led a group of people through the tunnel. "The railroad wants to know as soon as we are clear so they can start moving trains through here. It's a busy tunnel."

Downs demonstrated the small cut-outs on both walls of the 1902 tunnel that were only large enough for a single person to stand in as a train rolled past.

"They're located about every 200 feet," Downs said. The Cooper Tunnel is 698-feet long. Downs ducked into one of the notches as people strolling through the tunnel took pictures.

"The former roof was eight courses of brick thick," Bill Hawk, with Jacobs Associates said. "They built it solid. We found a 50-ton rock up there that had fallen 12 feet. The bricks withheld that impact."

Downs and Hawk provided an on-going narrative of the tunnel during the walk. The crews cut notches in the arched stones that formed the entrances to both ends of the tunnels. Downs explained that LRL crews reinforced the arches with roof bolts.

"We bolted the rocks in all along the walls of the tunnel," Downs said.

"This is interesting," Downs said as he emerged from the western end of the tunnel. "It looks like the builders ran into a seam of coal and they filled it in by putting stone and cement between the strata above and below the coal."

Downs explained the engineering challenge as people taking the tour looked at the wall high on the rock outcropping near the tunnel entrance.

"That seems to support local lore that has always been that the workers who initially built the Cooper Tunnel followed the coal seam and mined the coal as they went through," Bramwell Mayor Louise Stoker said. The coal seam is located near the top of the tunnel.

Hawk said that about half of the 28 tunnels that needed to be enlarged to accommodate the larger double-stacked rail cars needed to have their ceilings raised, while the others could be enlarged by lowering the track. He explained that the tunnels that were near trestles could not be lowered because it would change the grade too much.

Bill and Ruby Vaughn have lived near the eastern entrance to the Cooper Tunnel, but this was the first time they had been inside.

"We were here the day the train derailed and threw the car-carriers off the track," Ruby Vaughn said. "Our daughter heard it, but we were on the other side of the house and didn't hear anything. When she got us and we looked outside, it was scary. It looked like the cars would roll right over on us."

NS surveying crews were in the tunnel taking final measurements to see if the tunnel would be able to handle the higher freight loads. Hawk said that NS track replacement crews will be in the tunnel next to replace the track.

The NS Heartland Corridor project began in the fall of 2007. An NS official said earlier this year that the entire route from Chicago, Ill., to Hampton Roads, Va., would be able to serve double-stacked freight cars this summer.

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