Once work to make the Virginia Avenue train tunnel deeper and wider is finished, taller and more efficient trains will be able to pass through, and there will be fewer Amtrak and VRE delays. Here’s an update on how the project is progressing.

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel project’s boundaries. All images from CSX.

We’re 10 months into CSX’s 42-month project, with the company reporting that it has drilled 1,169 pilings for the new tunnels, excavated 7,600 truckloads of dirt the work site, and poured 7,400 cubic yards of concrete to form the new tunnel floor.

Right now, only one track passes through the tunnel. The main project has two phases, the first being to build a new track next to the existing one, and the second being to open the new track and build a second one where the existing one currently sits. The first phase is what requires expanding the existing tunnel.

Upcoming traffic changes will alter 8th Street

Starting in early April and lasting for up to eight weeks, lanes on 8th Street will curve and run slightly west of where they usually are. A temporary bridge deck will go in so traffic continues to move while the CSX construction teams continue excavating soil from the tunnel area. Cones and temporary traffic signs will be on the roadway to guide drivers to where they need to be, and a new temporary sidewalk, separated from cars by concrete barriers, will go on the west side of 8th Street.

Upcoming traffic changes on 8th Street. On the map, north is to the left.

Parking on both sides of the street will be removed in the construction area to allow cars to continue moving in both directions.

The project is part of a national CSX initiative

CSX is heavily invested in moving shipping containers around the country— containers which can easily be taken off a train and put on a truck or ship. In order to stay competitive, the company needs to carry more cargo more efficiently. To do that, the agency designed a program called “National Gateway” back in 2008, identifying a number of bottlenecks that need fixing, along with other improvements it can make.

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel project is one part of that. CSX sends roughly 25 trains through the tunnel every day, and each of these only carries a single stack of cargo or shipping containers. If CSX even were to simply raise the height of the tunnel and keep a single track, the company could nearly double the amount of cargo it carries each day, much of which would go to and from major east coast like those in Baltimore and Virginia.

But adding a second track is important too. Commuter trains through DC from Virginia receive priority during morning and evening peak hours, meaning freight trains usually have to wait. But when freight trains travel through the tunnel because they’re “time sensitive,” then other freight and passenger trains can be delayed.

Construction has generally had a low impact on the neighborhood

In working with residents to plan the project, CSX agreed to noise and vibration limits. Not only can loud construction noise and vibrations be annoying, they can also potentially damage houses and other buildings nearby.

The project’s monthly environmental reports note that two locations in February saw vibration higher than the company’s stated goal, and no noise violations. The monitoring analysis reports that the vibration violations were so infrequent (two times in the whole month) that they were not estimated to cause damage and wouldn’t require project changes.

Overhead view of digging work between 5th and 6th Streets to 7th Street.

There’s lots of digging still to be done

Much of the work to date on the tunnel has been excavation to make room for the new tunnel for the second set of tracks and there’s still plenty to do. The construction teams are working to clear out dirt, rock, and other obstacles for the second track, and will dig down a few inches to “drop” the track so that double-stack trains can fit through the tunnel.

The existing tunnel is only 18.7 feet tall, but CSX wants it to offer closer to 21 feet of clearance to allow for a second layer of shipping containers.

Once the “new” section of the tunnel is built, the work will be repeated for the “old” side to bring the existing track up to snuff.

Phase I: demolition of part of the old tunnel to allow for expansion.

Below, you can see the floor of the new area has been covered with concrete for the track to be laid on. You can also see the existing track, in the upper-left-hand-side of the photo.

Concrete being poured into the new section of the tunnel east of 11th Street.

See these and more photos on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project Twitter and website.

Stephen Repetski is a Virginia native and has lived in the Fairfax area for over 20 years. He has a BS in Applied Networking and Systems Administration from Rochester Institute of Technology and works in Information Technology. Learning about, discussing, and analyzing transit (especially planes and trains) is a hobby he enjoys.