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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

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

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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