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Collapse symbolizes deterioration of Baltimore's illustrious railroad past

For nearly two centuries, Baltimore has been a railroad town, its great eastern port and once-thriving industries sustained by the network of freight lines running inland.

That legacy, however, ebbed over time as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was subsumed and its successor, CSX Transportation, moved south. Residents and local officials say the city's prominence in the railroad industry crumbled alongside the aging tunnels, overpasses and tracks that convey trains through city neighborhoods every day.

The relationship between Baltimoreans and the railroad has frayed as well. In Southwest Baltimore, a community is battling to stop a proposed CSX cargo transfer facility. In Locust Point, Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour and one of the city's most prominent businessmen, joined others in lambasting the trash and debris littering the railroad's properties, saying it gives an "embarrassing and inaccurate picture" of Baltimore.

The gulf between residents of the nation's first great railroad town and the heir to its first great railroad grew wider still Wednesday when a retaining wall along East 26th Street in Charles Village collapsed, dumping part of the road, dirt and eight cars onto a key CSX rail line below.

Residents — who have been complaining about the deterioration of the wall and street for years — were aggravated further when CSX reopened the line, even though residents of 19 evacuated homes were told they might not be able to return for more than a month.

City and railroad officials stopped short of pointing fingers, saying they had not determined who was responsible for the wall and what happened.

"I want to make sure in Baltimore we're working together," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

But residents called the lack of communication a continuing problem.

"If CSX even just once a year came to a community meeting, or even just responded to an email," said Kelly Cross, president of the local Old Goucher Community Association. He said he had been pressing city and CSX officials about the wall's condition for weeks before the collapse. "You send them [emails] and they just go into the ether. It's almost like the organization doesn't exist. There's no point of contact."

CSX "strives to be a good neighbor," said Gary Sease, a spokesman for the Jacksonville, Fla.-based company. It "proudly traces its history in Baltimore to the founding of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad," he added, noting that history can be seen in some of the city's most recognizable landmarks — such as the old B&O warehouse's incorporation into Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"CSX and the City of Baltimore have a good, cooperative relationship that has stood the test of time and a handful of challenges," Sease wrote. "In any relationship, occasional difficulties can arise, but CSX, the city, and its public officials and community leaders have worked constructively toward productive resolutions."

While conflicts between municipalities and railroads are not uncommon, creative solutions have been developed across the country, such as finding ways to deal with traffic slowdowns and safety concerns caused by ungated intersections, said Sandra Rosenbloom, director of the Urban Institute's Innovation in Infrastructure program.

"A hundred years ago, the rail companies were king and they did what they wanted, and cities were happy to have them," she said. "More and more, cities are entering into agreements and working out deals with private operations to ensure things are safe, and building alternative roads, and building overpasses and underpasses. When it's mutually beneficial, not surprisingly, is when you get the best cooperation."

Residents, several city officials and other longtime railroad observers in Baltimore acknowledged that CSX plays a role in Baltimore's success, but said it should provide the same commitment to local communities as it does to its business.

"Unfortunately over the many years I have felt that CSX treats Baltimore and Maryland like unwanted stepchildren," said Helen Delich Bentley, a former Maryland congresswoman and an adviser to the state's port administration. "And there are times when you think things are getting better and then they aren't."

While the city "gave birth to the B&O," Bentley said, its successor's relationship with Baltimore and Maryland has been contentious even though CSX does not clash with other cities and states. "I don't understand why," she added.

Under Armour's Plank spent months late last year complaining to city officials about trash along the entrance to Key Highway from Interstate 95, according to emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

"It is an embarrassing and inaccurate picture of our City but it is the first thing that people see," Plank wrote in a December email. "Not sure if it is CSX, the State, the City, etc but it is the Brand of Baltimore and I would like that to continue to improve."

Plank, who could not be reached for comment, even offered to help clear the trash using his "own resources."

City officials, in emails to each other discussing Plank's concerns, lamented that securing agreements with CSX to enter and clear the railroad's rights-of-way is difficult.

In Morrell Park, residents fighting a proposed CSX facility — where trains would be double-stacked with shipping containers for more efficient transport — say dozens of other groups have joined them in solidarity because they are fed up with the railroad's actions in their neighborhoods.

CSX used to have a community advocate who worked with the city on issues, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said, adding that residents in her district have long complained about trash and debris along CSX lines.

"It's really sad, because we're the home of CSX and they all moved to Florida and left us and forgot we exist," Clarke said. "Maybe this tragedy on 26th Street will bring them back home and remind them of where they came from and how important it is."

Bentley said she hoped things would turn around after CSX appointed Baltimore-born Mike Ward as CEO, "but unfortunately, that's not happening."

CSX declined to make Ward available for an interview.

Rawlings-Blake acknowledged that the borders between the city and railways are a constant sore spot, citing the 2001 derailment of a 60-car CSX freight train that burned for days inside the Howard Street tunnel.

"These lines where CSX and the city properties meet, where we know historically we've had problems before — the tunnel fire — it is not uncommon in Baltimore and other places around the country," she said.

To ease tensions going forward, the City Council is working to build buffers between industrial and residential areas into a new comprehensive zoning code, the first overhaul of city laws governing development in a generation.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger expects to host a workshop in the coming months to discuss requirements that green space, trees and, in some cases, walls be established near newly developed industrial properties, such as rail yards, to create sound and visual barriers.

Reisinger, who is leading the city's zoning overhaul, also expects litter and weeds near rail lines to be addressed.

"One of the biggest issues with CSX is keeping their area clean and the grass cut," Reisinger said.

Reisinger characterized the city's relationship with CSX as complicated, rather than good or bad. In recent years, he said, the railroad bought computers for recreation centers and held tree-planting events with community groups.

Laurie Feinberg, who runs the city's comprehensive planning program, said certain rail issues cannot be addressed by zoning. Rail rights-of-way, established by federal law, transcend the city's zoning powers. Plus, she said, the port and rail lines are fixtures.

"You can't move those," Feinberg said. "It's about working around those givens.

"To the extent possible, we try to create buffer zones. That doesn't always work in Baltimore because we're a built-up city. Historically, houses were built right up against railroads."

Karen Johns of Locust Point is among the Baltimoreans who lives near CSX property — and who has battled with the company. She came to be known around Baltimore as "The Bridge Lady" for her persistent push for repairs to a CSX-owned bridge near her house in the 1200 block of Fort Ave. — even threatening to conduct a naked protest to get action.

CSX and the city disagreed for years over who was responsible for the upkeep of the bridge, which spans railroad tracks and leads to Fort McHenry. After years of protests, city officials announced plans in 2007 to replace it. CSX promised to pay for the design and 75 percent of the construction cost; the city covered the rest of the costs and assumed responsibility for maintenance.

"I worked on the bridge for 14 years to get someone to pay attention to me and I had to fight the railroad and City Hall and — finally," said Johns, 73. "They kept telling me it passed inspection. I said, 'I am not an engineer, but I can see with my eyes it's not safe.'"

Given the trouble she went through, she wasn't surprised that the warnings of residents about the 26th Street wall went unheeded.

"That's what happens if you keep putting it off," Johns said.

Anthony J. Ambridge, a former longtime city councilman, called Wednesday's collapse "a disaster waiting to happen since the '90s, at least."

Ambridge, whose district included Charles Village, called on the city at that time to spend an estimated $2 million to repair damage to the wall along 26th Street between Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue. He said the city made the repairs at the time, then sued CSX for repayment, but he never learned the resolution.

Of the collapse, Ambridge said, "I am surprised it didn't happen sooner."

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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