A Disaster Waiting To Happen? Oil Trains And The Collision at Fairmount Park Tunnel

 

bomb train

This train ain’t bound for glory | Photo: Michael Bixler

Across the country, oil train accidents have become routine news fodder—four trains have derailed in the past month alone—making the possibility of a serious incident along the Schuylkill River seem quite high. Federal data shows that more petroleum has spilled from trains in 2013 than in the previous four decades combined. Each week, 60 to 70 trains carrying upwards of a million barrels of crude oil fracked from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan travel through the city to the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refining complex in South Philadelphia. This route includes a narrow, half-mile-long tunnel passing from Fairmount Park to the Schuylkill Banks underneath the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Eakins Oval.

An Accident Waiting To Happen (Again)?

Nearly 400,000 Philadelphians live within a half-mile of the rail lines that carry crude oil, according to an analysis by Public Source. Local officials are facing public pressure to reduce the city’s exposure to what activists derisively call “bomb trains.”

In January, 11 CSX train cars carrying oil went off the tracks near Lincoln Financial Field. There were no ruptured tankers, but the accident raised public fear.

A year earlier, seven CSX train cars, including some transporting oil, derailed on the Schuylkill Arsenal Bridge. The cars dangled over the Schuylkill River, though Philadelphia escaped harm as none leaked. CSX later determined that a maintenance crew had failed to follow procedures while replacing cross-ties. City Council conducted a hearing on the accident, and Kenyatta Johnson, the Councilman whose 2nd District includes the Point Breeze and Girard Point refineries and the elevated rail viaduct leading to them, penned a non-binding resolution calling on the federal government to tighten regulations. But the oil trains keep coming, a mile long, ten a day.

The Schuylkill River line is highly susceptible to railroad accidents, particularly considering CSX transports crude oil and toxic chemicals over the route. The stretch passing through the Fairmount Park Tunnel is potentially one of the toughest spots in the Philadelphia region for coping with emergencies involving hazardous cargoes. Yet the tunnel is used often for the transport of hazards. During Operation Desert Storm, for example, over 151 rail cars of munitions—artillery projectiles, shell casings and small arms ammunition—rolled through the tunnel on the way to the Middle East. In 1993, six tons of nuclear fuel passed through Center City on this line on their way to the Limerick power plant.

Collision at Park Tunnel

In fact, the Fairmount Park Tunnel has already experienced a catastrophe involving oil tankers. On May 11th, 1900, a tragic accident caused by human error blocked the tunnel for three days. Two railroad workers were killed in the ensuing fire.

At midnight, a northbound B & O freight train stalled on the ascending grade inside the tunnel. A typical practice to remedy a stall in the tunnel was to split the train into two sections so that each could be hauled separately. While the first section was moved out of the tunnel, seventeen cars of the second section remained on the through tracks, including three tank cars filled with naphtha and petroleum.

The reconstruction of the Fairmount Park Tunnel, showing the enormity of this 1921 project | From the July 2, 1921, issue of Railway Age.

A Reading freight train—with the locomotive’s throttle wide open to overcome the grade—smashed into the standing cars at about 500 feet south of the tunnel’s northern end. The tankers exploded and the Reading train’s engineer and fireman died upon impact.

The wreckage burned for over a day. An attempt to get to the inferno by blasting through the tunnel roof under Fairmount Avenue was unsuccessful. Thirty city firemen were burned or overcome by smoke and fumes while battling the underground blaze. Property loss was estimated at $180,000 ($5.1M in today’s dollars).

An investigation revealed that the crash occurred primarily because of a failure of routine signaling at the Race/Callowhill signal tower. Signal block operator William Lantell failed to switch the white “all clear” light to red so as to warn oncoming trains to stop because he fell asleep at his post. Lantell disappeared after the collision, later giving himself up to authorities, saying: “I am ready to stand the censure and take what comes to me. I have no excuse to offer.” Lantell was charged with voluntary manslaughter, but was eventually exonerated after a determination that sleeping on the job was not negligence for which he could be found culpable.

Mapping the Line

Route of the Schuylkill River East Side Railroad.

Route of the Schuylkill River East Side Railroad

Built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, this four-mile rail line once connected to the Reading Railroad’s main line for New York-bound trains. It is now one of two routes between CSX’s Philadelphia and Trenton Subdivisions. The Fairmount Park Tunnel is 2540-feet long and the busiest rail freight tunnel in Philadelphia.

The line comes from the south (specifically, the Reading Railroad’s former Chester Branch); after crossing the Schuykill River just south of Grays Ferry, it skirts the east bank of the river while passing under the bridges used by Walnut, Chestnut, and Market Streets, JFK Boulevard, and SEPTA Regional Rail. The line proceeds into the tunnel under Eakins Oval near Paine’s Park. The tracks pass beneath the Washington Monument and the two fountains on either side of the memorial–in the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art plaza–before joining the Reading Railroad’s Pennsylvania Avenue Subway. (The Pennsylvania Avenue line was part of the Reading’s City Branch route, the submerged and now-abandoned line that parallels Callowhill Street that connects to the Reading Viaduct.) The two sets of tracks continue northwards and exit into daylight at 27th Street, ascending gradually to ground level near Girard Avenue.

Into the Underground

A vintage look at the inside of the Fairmount Park Tunnel. | From the Journal of the Engineers' Society of Pennsylvania (1916).

A vintage look at the inside of the Fairmount Park Tunnel | From the Journal of the Engineers’ Society of Pennsylvania, 1916

The railroad line along the Schuylkill River was incorporated as the Schuylkill River East Side Railroad in 1883, with the Baltimore & Ohio operating it as a subsidiary. The city passed an ordinance granting the B & O the right to construct the route in 1885. This short line handled all B & O freight and passenger traffic to and from New York and other points north of Philadelphia.

The underlying reason for building the Fairmount Park Tunnel was to preserve the scenic entrances to Fairmount Park while allowing the B & O to easily access the Reading main line further north.

Prior to 1921, the Fairmount Park Tunnel began under Callowhill Street, which once passed through the vicinity of today’s Paine’s Park. The tunnel proceeded under 25th Street–a once-major street that passed in front of the Fairmount Reservoir, which was originally on the site of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Digging the tunnel occurred principally through rock varying from 12 to 35 feet deep. An open cut was first made, then the masonry was laid and filled over, and then the streets were restored. The tunnel was built as a six ring brick arch supported on walls made of Conshohocken stone having a clear width of 30 feet between them. Approximately 700 feet of the tunnel’s central section was built with an eight degree curve. The tunnel was originally 2,303 feet long.

Water mains ranging from 20 to 48 inches in diameter and sewers from three to ten feet had to be rerouted, and some large buildings along the way were raised by as much as 11 feet to the new grade of surrounding streets. City traffic had to be maintained and five lines of trolley tracks had to kept open during construction. North of the Fairmount Avenue, where the subway ended, workers installed ornamental ironwork along the top of the open trench alongside Pennsylvania Avenue and East Fairmount Park. The Fairmount Park Tunnel opened for rail traffic in December 1886.

The Schuylkill River East Side Railroad passed through the city seamlessly, only interrupting only one active street. This was especially noteworthy due to the line’s four-mile length. Its passenger station, serving as the B & O’s entrance to Philadelphia, was at 24th and Chestnut Streets. Known as the Chestnut Street Station and the 24th Street Station, the famed Frank Furness-designed building opened in 1888 and stood until its demotion in 1963.

Route of the Schuylkill River East Side Railroad. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is today on the site where the Fairmount Reservoir was located–where “Fairmount Park” is shown on the diagram.

The Fairmount Park Tunnel—along with the adjoining Pennsylvania Avenue Subway (built in the 1890s)—was considered an engineering marvel of its day. The huge tunnels were, together, the earliest subway project in Philadelphia.

Making Way For the PMA

Another shot of the 1921 reconstruction of the Fairmount Park Tunnel | From the July 2, 1921 issue of Railway Age

The Fairmount Reservoir and 25th Street were removed in the early 20th Century to make way for the construction of Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Fairmount Park Tunnel was completely reconfigured and enlarged–the year “1921” appears in the concrete above the western portal adjacent to Paine’s Park and Eakins Oval. The subway was uncovered from the top. Side walls and supporting arches were reconstructed of concrete. A three inch layer of asphalt was spread over the roof structure as a covering and to waterproof the revamped tunnel, which was extended to 2,540 feet long. Callowhill Street was also removed in that area due to this work.

The tunnel was subsequently extended by about 500 feet to end at Aspen Street. This is immediately north of 2601 Parkway Condominium, which was Philadelphia’s biggest apartment complex when completed in 1940. The tunnel was likely lengthened to hide it from view of the front doors of 2601 Parkway.

Today, only a few ventilation grills on Pennsylvania Avenue reveal the massive infrastructure beneath the surface near the Art Museum. As mile-long trains carrying volatile crude oil pass through it several times every day, we certainly hope the tunnel remains safely invisible.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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14 Comments


  1. There was a spill — at least one car left the tracks between Grant’s Statue & the Cowboy — about ten years ago. It was in December and no-one was allowed to row on the Schuylkill for several days because of the spill.

  2. Very interesting article, thank you Harry. Scarry items carried on trains, but how else is it going to get where it needs to go? One would think a pipeline to transport some of it would be safer. The only thing to worry about there would be the spill, but that hasn’t happened in Alaska since they built that pipeline.

  3. Transporting crude oil is vital part of our local and national economy which has an exemplary safety record. Note: many people who oppose transporting rail by train also oppose transporting oil by pipeline. Does that make sense?

  4. What about all the oil, gas and other flammable products that are shipped by tractor trailers? Is that safer than rail, driving a bomb down the highway?

    • Thats do to the drivers of cars that don’t know how to drive and share the road with tractor trailers!

      Truck Accident Statistics
      Over the past two decades, the number of truck accidents has increased by 20%. According to the Federal Motor carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), in 2002, 4,897 individuals died and 130,000 people were injured in crashes that involved a large truck. And even though large trucks are only responsible for 3% of injury-causing motor vehicle accidents, trucking accidents typically cause much greater harm than ordinary traffic accidents due to the large size and heavy weight of most trucks.

  5. Is there an alternate route that could be used by these trains?

    • There are risks involved in everything we do in life. The secret to safety is to learn how to manage these risks and keep them to a minimum.

    • Not on the Philadelphia Subdivision per se, but there are opportunities to change the routing of the equally dangerous Harrisburg Sub away from the Arsenal Bridge and 25th St Viaduct and towards the 60th St Branch, crossing the Schuylkill on a new isolated bridge at 56th St.

      • Care to put a price tag on it?

        (Though if you did do that, it would open up the Viaduct, Arsenal Bridge, and large parts of the wye on the west side of the Schuylkill to redevelopment.)

        • That’s definitely not my area of expertise, but I would imagine that an overpass over the Philly Sub at Bartram’s Garden and a 2000-foot Schuylkill bridge shouldn’t cost over $30 million. However, the recent decision to renovate the 25th St Viaduct sinks this hypothetical plan for the time being

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