On the right, a train of mostly double-stack railcars in Birmingham. Image by David Brossard licensed under Creative Commons.

Last Friday, a train made its first run through a new tunnel under Virginia Avenue on Capitol Hill in DC. It’s the first time rail cars with two storage containers stacked on top of one another have been able to pass through the area. Soon, a second tunnel will double the fun.

CSX double-stack freight intermodal heading north through the first new Virginia Avenue tunnel. Video by CSX on youtube.com.

Only typically-sized rail cars can pass through the tunnel that has long carried trains under Virginia Avenue on their way to or from Virginia or Maryland, and only on a single trackThe taller tunnels will benefit intermodal freight, or when trains carry shipping containers from ports to transfer center where they're moved to trucks for their final delivery.

By allowing trains to carry shipping containers through the DC area, more shipments can move more efficiently to distribution centers all over the country. That has created a bottleneck in CSX’s rail network, and in 2015, CSX started a project to replace the existing tunnel and add a second one, the end goal being two deeper, taller tunnels that allow trains with two stories of freight containers (called “double stacks” or, even more technically, trains with “Plate H clearance”) to pass.

The first double stacked train ran through that second tunnel around 8 am on the 23rd.

The taller tunnels will benefit intermodal freight, or when trains carry shipping containers from ports to transfer center where they're moved to trucks for their final delivery. By allowing trains to carry shipping containers through the DC area, more shipments can move more efficiently to distribution centers all over the country.

In the long run, that should mean fewer trucks on the highways. CSX’s presentation to DC area governments back in 2009 claimed the overall project would shift “nearly 3 billion freight vehicle miles” traveled on highways to the rail network, and would similarly save 250 million gallons of fuel.

While the new tunnel is open, the project still has a ways to go before it’s finished. Portions of 3rd, 5th, and 7th Streets in the construction area are expected to be closed or shifted throughout January and February 2017 as the CSX construction work shifts over to reconstructing the old tunnel, and 8th Street is expected to stay open throughout construction.

The entire project is expected to be wrapped up around January 2019.

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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.