By next school year, waiting for a slow train will no longer be an excuse to be late for class. The plan to build an underpass tunnel beneath the train tracks, which run through the middle of the Goshen College campus, has been 30 years in the making and will finally begin in March.

According to Jim Histand, GC vice president for finance and overseer of physical plant and facilities, plans for an underpass have been in the campus master plan for nearly three decades, but planners became serious about the idea in 2002 when an engineering feasibility study was conducted to gauge potential costs.

In the following years, finding funding for the project was the main challenge. Most campus improvement projects are funded by donors, who are typically more inclined to donate money for new buildings and other substantial projects. However, the planners were recently surprised to discover that a government grant would cover the entire costs of construction. GC will only contribute to engineering and planning costs.

Preliminary work will begin March 15 to reroute underground utilities and power lines. Prefabricated sections of the tunnel will be installed on July 4 in a 24-hour time frame. Norfolk Southern, the railroad company, will only allow train traffic to be halted for one day. Final clean-up work is expected to be finished by the time students arrive on campus for the fall 2012 semester.

Histand stated that GC has not had any major safety accidents due to the railroad. “We’ve been fortunate,” he said. Safety, though, is still at the heart of this project.

“It takes away incentives to make poor safety decisions,” said Histand. “There is no longer an excuse to run to beat the train… It really has been an issue of safety.”

It is commonplace for trains to stop in the middle of campus, a barrier to pedestrians trying to cross the tracks. According to Histand, anywhere between seven and ten trains might pass on the tracks in a 24 hour period, all of which are subject to stopping for a few minutes and up to a few hours in exceptional cases.

The tunnel will accommodate pedestrians needing to cross the tracks when a train is either stopped or moving. Currently, a $100 fine is imposed upon anyone who climbs over or under a stopped train as a safety precaution. After the tunnel is complete, a train will allow anyone to cross the tracks safely.

Only one crossing will be removed as a part of this improvement. Northfolk Southern made this a requirement for construction to happen, essentially allowing the underpass to replace a current crossing. Histand and other planners “don’t expect (the tunnel) to be used a lot” because other crossings will be more convenient when a train is not on the tracks.

According to Histand, the tunnel will be well lit and equipped for handicap accessibility. Agreeing that ice might pose a problem in the winter, Histand said the tunnel “will involve some maintenance, there’s no question.”

“Yes, Goshen is unique. We have a train in the middle of campus,” said Histand. Once the tunnel is in place, he hopes that the train will “not get in the way of campus life.”

“I’m certainly excited to see [the plans] come to pass,” he said.