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.