NORTH ADAMS -- The recent award of $2 million from the Federal Railroad Administration will allow the state Department of Transportation, in partnership with Pan Am Railways and Norfolk South Railways, to move forward with a preliminary engineering and design study that would enlarge the Hoosac Tunnel's clearance by more than two feet.
The study, costing a total of $3 million, includes preliminary engineering and design work to remove or increase the clearance of 18 additional sites along the 155-mile "Patriot Corridor" stretching from Mechanicville, N.Y., to Ayer.
According to Robert Caulliford, general counsel for Boston and Maine Corp., a member of Pan Am Southern LLC of Billerica, the preliminary study will determine if the Hoosac Tunnel's clearance can be increased from 19 feet 5 inches to the minimum requirement of 21 feet 9 inches needed to accommodate "double-stacked" freight containers
"The study will determine if the tunnel can's height can be changed, either by raising the ceiling or lowering its floor," Culliford said Monday. "This is part of a larger plan to improve our capacity and get more volume on our trains."
Pan Am Southern and Norfolk South, which share ownership of the Patriot Corridor, are investing some $85.7 million in railroad improvements, including a $40 million intermodel hub which recently opened in Mechanicville, N.Y.
The study will also include the "Little Tunnel" near Western Gateway Heritage State Park, the pedestrian footbridge leading from lower West Main Street into the park, sites at Furnace and State streets and an additional 2.5 miles of rail in Pownal, Vt.
U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman Robert Kulat said double-stacking of freight containers -- typically truck trailers -- has increased across the nation. The practice makes moving freight by rail more efficient but has also created a need to increase the clearance of tunnels, bridges and pedestrian roadways.
"When the Hoosac Tunnel was originally built, there were no freight containers and trucks; only coal cars," he said. "With the amount of rail freight traffic increasing, especially as gas prices continue to go up, it's necessary to be able to increase the capacity of rail. Typically, businesses ship their truck trailers to an intermodel center, where they are unloaded and continue their journey, usually the last 30 miles, by road."
However, the current height of the 4.75-mile Hoosac Tunnel does not allow for freight of any type to be double-stacked, eliminating the option for any trains traveling along the Patriot Corridor. The Hoosac Tunnel's clearance was last increased by 12 inches, beginning in 1997. The process, which included grinding down the ceiling and floor of the tunnel, took two years and was privately funded by Guilford Rail, the predecessor of Pan Am Railways.
Kulat said the $2 million Federal Railroad Administration Rail Line Relocation Improvement grant was part of $16.9 million in funds for 12 rail projects around the country announced by the department Friday.
According to MassDOT officials, the need to examine increasing the tunnel's clearance comes out of a 2010 state rail plan, which showed the "added freight capacity would improve roadway safety, motor vehicle traffic flow, community quality of life, and economic development by removing trucks from the roadway network and providing added shipping options for businesses."
The report estimated the increased capacity would eliminate some 300 trucks from the roads and increase the flow of goods into New England.