Work continues on West Virginia rail tunnels

Written by jrood

When the workers laboring to raise the roof of the old Cooper Tunnel on the Norfolk Southern main line in Mercer County, W.Va., see daylight, it's about time to call it a day, the Bluefield Daily Telegraph reports. NS is on the home stretch of the Heartland Corridor project that started in the fall of 2007 and is on track to be finished later this summer. When it's done, the Heartland Corridor will enable NS to move double-stacked freight cars from Lambert's Point (near Hampton Roads, Va.) on the Atlantic coast all the way to Chicago on the Lake Michigan shore.

"When people ask, I tell
them we’re clear in Virginia as far as Belcher Bridge in Bluefield," James N.
Carter Jr., PE, chief engineer/bridges and structures with NS said. "When they
ask me when it will be done, I tell them August."

Carter, 57, is an
old-school railroader who was born in Piedmont, near Mullens, when his father,
a Virginian Railway locomotive engineer, was serving in the Korean War with the
U.S. Army. After the Virginian merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway in
1959, the family moved from Mullens to Bluefield, where the senior Mr. Carter
worked with the N&W. The family picked out a home on the Virginia side so
young Jim could pursue his lifelong dream of attending Virginia Tech. "As an
in-state student," Carter said.

Each structure – tunnel,
low bridge or narrow cut – along the 1,200 mile-plus long Heartland Corridor
has its own set of challenges. Before crews with LRL Construction of Tillamook,
Ore., started work, Carter had to hammer out the details of the project with
his brother NS railroaders. Both main line tracks needed to be shut down for a
while, but with as many as 18 trains moving through Bluefield over a 12-hour
period, Gary Shepard, superintendent of NS’s Pocahontas Division headquartered
in Bluefield would have his hands full.

"The hardest thing about
doing a job like this is having to run trains every day on one of the busiest
sections in the NS system," Carter said. "I worked at the coal load-out in
Lambert’s Point for 15 years, so I know how important it is. I wanted as much
uninterrupted time as possible to work on the structures, so the transportation
planning people worked with people on the coal traffic side and we figured it

"Gary asked me: ‘Does it
make any difference if you work in the day or night?’ I told him it’s always
dark in the tunnel, so it didn’t matter," Carter said. "They close the track
down from 2 a.m., until noon every day. We get a section done, clean everything
up and get back to it when we go in the next day." Since coal traffic is
traditionally heavier late in the week, the Cooper Tunnel crew works Saturday
through Wednesday."

Initial construction of
the Cooper Tunnel was a significant moment in the history of the N&W
Railway’s development of the McDowell County coalfields. Keystones at both ends
of the tunnel bear a 1902 date, but the start of the tunnel triggered the
development of the vast metallurgical coalfields in McDowell County. Pioneer coal
baron Jenkin Jones was in the first wave of McDowell County coal developers,
but Samuel A. Crozer, John J. Lincoln, L.E. Tierney and others soon ignited the
McDowell County coal boom of the early 20th Century.

The crews who built the
Cooper Tunnel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries built it to last. The
680-foot long tunnel has a huge void above the roof that appears on maps to
extend more than two-thirds the length of the structure. The void is listed at
as much as 18 feet on some of the maps, but Bill Hawk, an inspector with Jacobs
Associates laughed and hinted that the charts may not be entirely accurate.

The roof of the old
tunnel was lined courses of bricks set in mortar, topped with another 4-foot
layer of concrete. "Some huge rocks fell on the top in that void over the
years, but didn’t come through," Carter said.

"They originally had wood
stacked up in there," Jared Beeler, superintendent on the tunnel job for LRL

"One place up in there,
we found lead buckets that they used to carry grout up there," Mike Downs of
LRL said. "They built this back when men were men." The LRL crews donated the
lead grout buckets and some other artifacts to Bramwell Mayor Louise Stoker to
display at the Bramwell Depot.

Carter said crews are
replacing the arched brick roof with curved steel I-beams, topping them with
48-inches of concrete and moving the top up from its former 19’6" to a new
height of 20’3". After everything is in place, workers will top the steel
interior of the roof with shot-crete.

In addition to the Cooper
Tunnel, crews are also working on the Big Sandy 1, 2, and 3 tunnels. When the
project is completed, crews will have completed expansion of five miles in
total length of 28 tunnels. Crews lowered the track in five of the tunnels, but
all the rest involved raising the roof.

Safety is a priority on
the job site. So far, one contractor died as a result of injuries received on
the project. Larry Dale Hunt, 28, of McDowell County died Oct. 22, 2009, while
excavating broken concrete at Tunnel #3 near Gray Eagle. NS Spokesman Robin
Chapman said that approximately 160 ton of materials fell on the excavator Hunt
was operating. Hunt was working for Johnson Western Gunite.

When the project is
finished, it will cut the mileage double-stacked trains travel from Hampton
Roads to Chicago by about 1,000 miles.