HARP Meeting (April 2018)

HARP-Panel.jpg

Background

For those of you who are new to this blog here is some background.

  • For almost three years the citizens of Ashland have been resisting the proposal to run a third track through town.
  • The resistance has been on many fronts, including public meetings with the authorities and reviewing legal issues.
  • I have concentrated on technology. After all, the last major technological change to the tracks took place in the early 1950s; it was the transition from steam to diesel-electric. That’s two generations ago.
  • The transportation industry in the United States is currently undergoing massive, wrenching and exciting changes. It seems that hardly a day goes by without there being news to do with autonomous vehicles, Space-X, electric trucks and other new technologies.
  • One of those changes is the technology known as “hyperloop”. (A brief overview of what this word means is provided below).
  • So the question is, “Can hyperloop technology perform an end run around this whole 3rd track controversy?”

Hyperloop

Hyperloop train Richmond to Washington
The technology associated with hyperloop is still being developed so it lacks standardization. (This is analogous to what happened in the early days of railroading. Initially many, many companies built and operated “short lines” — often using different track gauges. Only later did those short lines merge into large systems such as Pennsylvania Railroad.)

Regardless of how the technology shakes out, the key feature of any hyperloop system is that it virtually removes the three sources of friction that are a feature of current trains. They are:

  1. Friction between the rails and the rail;
  2. Internal friction due to the multiplicity of moving parts; and
  3. Air resistance — particularly when speeds go above 60 mph.

Hyperloop removes the wheel/rail friction because there are no wheels or rails. It has virtually no moving parts (it is driven by linear induction motors). And the pods run through tubes from which most of the air has been evacuated so there is negligible air resistance

The upshot is that the pods (carrying either freight or passengers) can travel at airplane speeds and they are very efficient. Moreover, there will probably not be trains or timetables as we know them now.

HARP

About a year ago a non-profit called Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership was formed. (I am a member.) The organization tries to pull tother all the threads to do with this new technology. The first conference that I attended was in New York last year.

They had another meeting this week in D.C. My overall impression is that both the technology and the business models are maturing. Hyperloop is happening. There are currently about 10 companies competing for work.

The following are my notes from the meeting in no particular order of priority.

The Baltimore/D.C. Project

HARP-1.jpg

The keynote speaker was Mr. Pete Rahn, Secretary of Transportation for the State of Maryland. He described the project that is underway to connect D.C. with Baltimore with an underground hyperloop system. The D.C. “station” will be on New York Avenue. He stated that, “Amtrak should be very worried”.

They plan on placing concrete tubes below grade; the tunnels will be built by Elon Musk’s Boring Company, which claims that they can dramatically reduce the time and cost it takes to make a tunnel, just as they have done with space travel. (The Boring Company keeps a snail in their office as a permanent challenge. They claim that snails move 14 times more quickly than current boring machines). One of the key justifications for going underground is that they get around most of the challenges to do with taking and demolishing property.

I asked Mr. Rahn if the tubes are of sufficient diameter to handle the 53 ft. containers that we see trundling through town all the time. Also, are the curves of sufficiently long radius to handle those contaners. He did not know the answer to either question.

Regulations

The European experience is that regulations will be developed a land-based agency, such as the Federal Railroad Administration.

Projects

In addition to the Maryland project, other active programs are:

  • A 3 km test track in Toulouse, France
  • The Dubai/Abu Dhabi route
  • Quebec City/Montreal/Toronto/Chicago project

Real Estate

Any attempt to expand any type of transportation system faces the challenge of lack of real estate. So proposals to build a new airport, freeway or railroad track results in resistance from local communities. Ashland is not unique.

The most attractive solution is go underground. But, in spite of the optimism expressed, the cost would probably be very high. Another option would be to use existing rights of way (freeways and railroads) to construct an elevated system.

Cherry Blossom

In addition to attending the meeting the trip was a good opportunity to see the famous cherry blossom.

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3-2-3

Trench-2
The following is from Kristin Reihl, our representative on the Citizen Committee.

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On Wednesday, December 6 the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) unanimously adopted a resolution supporting option 5A (the 3-2-3 option) through the Ashland/Hanover portion of the DC2RVA corridor. The resolution includes language intended to limit property acquisition along the tracks in Ashland and protect property and operations at Randolph-Macon College. The resolution by the CTB is a recommendation to the Federal Railroad Administration who will make the ultimate decision on the track improvements throughout the 123 mile DC2RVA corridor.

Town staff have compiled a substantial resource page at http://www.ashlandva.gov/505/DC2RVA-Information where you can review video and minutes from DC2RVA related meetings as well as various resolutions, letters and studies published by interested parties. Please contact Town Manager, Joshua Farrar at (804) 798-9219 or Jfarrar@ashlandva.gov if you have questions.

HARP Hyperloop Meeting

HARP HyperloopOn December 6th the non-profit organization Hyperloop Advanced Research Partnership (HARP) organized a conference in New York City. The title of the conference was The Hyperloop: Promises and Challenges. There were 75 attendees  —  the meeting was sold out.

Most of the meeting, which was chaired by HARP’s President, Dane Egli, consisted of a panel discussion followed by a question and answer session. Panel members were:

  • Sebastien Gendron, CEO & Co-founder of TransPod Hyperloop
  • Rebecca Leonard, President of Hypernet Holding Corporation (HHC)
  • Bibop G. Gresta, Chairman & Co-Founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT)
  • Rick Geddes, Professor of Policy Analysis, Cornell University & Director of the Cornell Program in Infrastructure Policy (CPIP)

As many readers of this blog know I started to look into the feasibility of hyperloop in order to find out if this new technology could create an end run around the problems to do with our ‘High Speed Rail’ project. But I have learned that this technology has the potential to change our transportation world as much as the automobile did a hundred years ago.

I attended this particular conference to learn more about the five basic questions I am trying to answer regarding hyperloop technology. The questions are:

  1. Will it work?
  2. Is it safe?
  3. Is it socially acceptable?
  4. Can it be profitable?
  5. Can it meet regulatory requirements?

The panel discussion was wide-ranging; I was encouraged to find that the research that we have done so far to do with the five questions has been quite successful — there were no surprises.

The three major takeaways for myself were:

  1. The technology is quite mature and proven.
  2. Hyperloop is not just a substitute for traditional rail. It will create a new culture that will transform all forms of surface transportation.
  3. The biggest challenge is political will — do we want to step out and adopt this new technology?

Based on my own research and on what I heard at this meeting the answers to the five questions are,

  1. Yes — there is no commercial hyperloop system in service yet but pilot projects are going well and all the pieces (maglev, low pressure tubes, linear electric motors) are in service and are successful.
  2. Conditional Yes — there are some concerns that need to be addressed regarding tracking stability.
  3. Strong Yes — the fact that hyperloop takes up much less real estate than roads, railways and airports was a stressed by the panelists. The technology is also environmentally clean.
  4. Uncertain — but the fact that Sir Richard Branson, who is a very successful business person with his own rail and airline companies, has invested in the company now known as Virgin Hyperloop One is a strong indicator as to the financial potential for this technology.
  5. Yes — the regulations have yet to be written (I have volunteered to help), but there is no reason to anticipate that they will constitute a major hurdle.

Molten Sulfur Release

Sulfur car derailment Florida

As we have discussed in earlier posts, approximately 6% of the freight cars that transit Ashland carry ‘highly hazardous chemicals’. These are materials that are flammable, explosive or toxic (often a combination of these three). And many of these cars carry elemental sulfur.

Today (2017-11-27) a CSX freight train derailed in Lakeland, Florida. It is reported that several cars rolled over and that four of those cars contained molten sulfur. There was a significant release of sulfur and there appears to be considerable damage. There are no reports of injuries.

Elemental sulfur comes from oil refineries. The crude oil that they receive contains sulfur compounds that need to be removed in the early stages of the refining process. These compounds are converted to sulfur, which is then loaded as a liquid into tank cars. These are transported to sites were the sulfur is used to manufacture many chemicals, including the sulfuric acid used in car batteries.

The melting point for sulfur is 115C/239F — and it is transported at a higher temperature than this to prevent it from solidifying in the cars. Which means that it is hot — much hotter than boiling water. (In the Bible it is referred to as Brimstone).

The image below shows the NFPA 704 Diamond for elemental sulfur.

NFPA Diamond SulfurIf there is a spill of sulfur there are three issues to consider.

Toxicity
In its solid form at room temperature sulfur is virtually non-toxic although sulfur dust is a mild irritant to some peple.

Thermal Burns
If someone is close to a sulfur spill they could be badly burned by the hot liquid.

Flammability
Sulfur is flammable. The combustion produces highly toxic sulfur dioxide gas. The following advice is given to firefighters.

If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, ISOLATE for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions; also, consider initial evacuation for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions. (ERG, 2016)

What does all this mean for the residents of Ashland?

Well, there is no such thing as a good sulfur spill. However, were there to be a release such as the one in Florida, the sulfur should solidify quite quickly, thus reducing the hazards to do with toxic gases and fire. However, were the release to be in a trench the sulfur would have nowhere to flow. This would increase the risk of fire and the associated production of highly toxic sulfur dioxide fumes. Furthermore, the emergency response teams would have a more difficult time working with a spill in a trench than they would in an open location.

Sulfur car derailment Florida

The Laws of Physics

Tesla truck

I am a chemical engineer. One of my first projects was to do with scaling up the results from a pilot plant that made plastics to the full-size facility. It turned out that scaling an industrial process can be tricky. For example, the volume of a vessel is proportional to its radius cubed, but the surface area is proportional to the surface squared. Hence heat transfer to and from the vessel required careful thought as the vessel size increased.

Process-Risk-Reliability-Management-2ndI have also spent many years analyzing the risk to do with large, complex industrial systems (chemicals, refining, pipelines, offshore oil and gas) and have published many books on these topics (the one that is probably most relevant to this discussion is Process Risk and Reliability Management).

I thought about this background in scale-up and risk management when reading about the new and exciting Tesla truck, as discussed in Just One Week. Such a vehicle seems almost too good to be true. It is efficient, environmentally clean, quiet and — above all — trendy. And the logic seems to be inescapable: electric cars have proven themselves to be commercially feasible, so why not scale up to electric trucks?

Well, as Tesla has shown, it is indeed possible to build an electric truck. But it is doubtful if a trucking company would ever buy one (unless diesel fuel becomes much, much more expensive than it is now). And this reticence has nothing to do with “attitude” — it is to do with the basic laws of physics, as discussed in the article Tesla semis and the laws of physics. What it boils down to is as follows:

  • Diesel fuel is much more energy-dense than even the most modern batteries.
  • A conventional, diesel-powered truck can haul 80,000 lb. of cargo for distances well in excess of 800 miles.
  • If an electric truck is to achieve a range of 800 miles the battery pack will be so heavy that it will not be able to carry any cargo at all.
  • The cost of the electric truck’s batteries alone is in the range $500,000 to $650,000, as compared with a complete diesel truck that is in the $100,000 $150,00 range.

An electric truck would be able to carry cargo over shorter distances (but much less than 80,000 lb.) But the economics simply do not work out. The transportation business in highly competitive — a trucking company is not going to purchase an electric truck without some type of government subsidy. Even for short distances, such as shuttling containers from a ship to a waiting freight train, the Port of Los Angeles found that electric trucks did not make economic sense. It is possible that new battery technology — also discussed in Just One Week — may address some of these difficulties. But that remains to be seen.

This site is about rail and hyperloop transportation, not about trucking. But there may be some lessons to be learned. We have to be careful that hyperloop does not become hyperloop. Specifically, does the maglev technology that is a fundamental part of hyperloop systems scale up successfully? For example, MagLev trains work and have been commercially successful for many years. But they have been successful in light-rail service such as airport shuttles. Will the technology scale up when faced with the challenge of supporting full-size, long distance passenger and high-value cargo traffic?

I trust that the answer to this question is “Yes”. But my industrial background suggests that we should be cautious and that we should be careful to check out assumptions to do with the basic laws of physics.

Just One Week

Tesla electric truck

A theme of this blog is that transportation technology is changing at amazing speeds yet the proposals for increasing freight capacity along the eastern corridor continue to assume the use of early 1950s technology (that was the time when locomotive power switched from steam to diesel-electric).

As an example of how technology is changing consider just three events from the past week — any of which could dramatically impact our project.

The Electric Truck

This week Elon Musk announced the Tesla electric truck. It will go from 0 to 60 mph in just 5 seconds (20 seconds while towing 80,000 lb). That’s faster than a Ford Taurus. It has a range of 500 miles at highway speeds (conventional trucks have a range up to 900 miles but many journeys are around 250 miles). It features, of course, highly sophisticated controls.

Given these figures one wonders if battery-powered trains will become feasible. If so the cost and disruption associated with overhead catenaries would be eliminated.

Solid-State Batteries

As discussed in an earlier post, the company Fisker has announced new battery technology that has an energy density 2.5 times greater than the batteries used in Musk’s cars and truck. (It needs to be stressed that there are still many technical obstacles to overcome.)

Denver

The city of Denver in Colorado has signed an agreement with the company Arrivo to install a maglev system in order to help solve that city’s serious traffic problems.

If all these changes happen in just one week, how will the industry look ten or fifteen years from now? It seems very unlikely that we will still be relying diesel-electric motive power or that the new transportation systems will still use steel wheels on steel rails.

Solid-State Batteries

Fisker solid-sate battery

This blog started out by providing technical analysis of the proposed Ashland third rail. The intent was to show that trying to squeeze a third rail through town — whether at grade or in a trench — is not feasible from an engineering point of view.

But what has happened in the two years that we have been blogging is that it is becoming increasingly obvious (a) that the transportation business is in turmoil as new technology advances very quickly, and (b) authorities such as DRPT and the CTB have not considered how these changes could apply to their proposed high-speed rail project.

As an example of how fast things are changing, just a few days ago a small company called Fisker announced that it has filed for patents for solid-state batteries. Here is what they claim.

  • They have an energy density 2.5 times that found in batteries used in current electric cars, such as Tesla. This would give an automobile a range of 500 miles.
  • The batteries can be recharged in as little as a minute.
  • They are much safer than conventional batteries.

Evidently, Toyota is working on similar technology and hopes to release it by the year 2022.

Are these claims realistic or are they hype? Well, there is certainly some hype. For example, if they really did try to recharge the battery in a minute they would need huge cables and the heat created would probably melt down everything in sight. But the essential point is that our transportation agencies and the railroad companies need to be paying very close attention to all these changes in technology. It is all happening very quickly.

Denver Takes the Lead

Arrivo system in Denver

The State of Colorado, working in partnership with the company Arrivo, has committed to building the nation’s first “electromagnetic super highway”. A video of the announcement is here. The Colorado executive director starts by noting that the Denver highway system was designed in the 1950s, built in the 1960s for a population of the 1980s. But since then the population of the area has doubled. The existing infrastructure cannot be expanded — they are stuck. A new type of transportation system is needed.

Here is my understanding of what they are proposing.

  • They will start construction of a test track next year. They then start a 400 day certification period around 2019/2020. If they receive certification they will move into building the first commercial track, probably between Denver and its airport.
  • This is not a full hyperloop system because the tubes are at atmospheric pressure. Consequently the the pods travel at only 200 mph.
  • The pods are powered by Linear Electric Motors (LEMs).
  • The journey time to the airport will fall from the current 90 minutes to 9 minutes.
  • A one-way ticket will cost $15.
  • The system will carry passengers, automobiles and freight and bicycles. They stress the fact that it is an auto train. This means that people will not have to give up their cars.
  • It will have a capacity ten times the current highway system. Current highways have a capacity of 2,000 to 3,500 cars per hour. They believe that the new system will be able to handle 20,000 cars per hour.
  • They will “layer” the system on to the existing infrastructure.

 

CTB Meeting: 2017-11-09

Commonwealth Transportation Board 2017-11-07

The Commonwealth Transportation Board held a meeting on November 11th at Randolph-Macon college to discuss the Tier II Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The discussion was for the whole corridor — not just the Ashland/Hanover section.

Here are a few notes:

  • 3,350 comments were submitted during the Tier II EIS comment period— over half were from the Ashland/Hanover area.
  • They are recommending the 3-2-3 option: 3 tracks to north of Vaughan Rd. and three tracks south of Ashcake Rd., with two tracks running through town.
  • Overpass bridges would be installed at Vaughan and at Ashcake.
  • There was some discussion about installing fences along the track.
  • There have been many management changes at CSX but it is not known how they might affect the project.
  • There is no funding for the project.
  • Various people stressed the role that new technology might play in the project — specifically hyperloop and deep bore tunnels.

Highly Hazardous Chemicals — Trench

Burning tank car

One of the concerns to do with the trench option is that a release from a tank car carrying highly hazardous chemicals could be particularly serious because there is nowhere for explosive or toxic vapors to disperse and so become diluted. This concern is a particular concern for light flammable materials such as LPG (of which we have many cars). If the gas leaks to an open space (as it would now) then we could have an unconfined vapor cloud explosion. In the trench, however, we could have a confined vapor cloud explosion, which is much worse.

At the meeting where the trench option was first mooted it was reported that studies to do with highly hazardous chemicals in trenches have been carried out but that the team had not had a chance to look at them. Since my specialty is process risk management I asked for copies of those reports.

I received the following reply today.

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Dear Mr. Sutton,

Federal regulations direct railroads to assess the risks for hazardous materials shipment routes. The DC2RVA Team found that risk analysis reports for other trench projects were not publicly available due to potentially sensitive security information.

Sincerely,
Emily Stock

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The way that the EPA manages the security of this type of information under their Risk Management Program is to provide secure rooms and to check who is looking at the reports. But the fundamental policy is that such information needs to be available to the public in general and emergency services in particular.

I wrote to Ms. Stock as follows.

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Dear Ms. Stock:

Thank you for your reply. I recognize that the information in these reports is sensitive and may represent a security concern. Nevertheless, the information should be made available to interested parties, particularly professional risk analysts and emergency responders.

The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) faces the same problem with their Risk Management Program (RMP). They do provide company reports to members of the public, but under controlled circumstances (for example, with secure rooms).

As you know I have worked in process risk management for many years. I would like to see these reports. I would, of course, agree to any reasonable security controls.

Regards,

Ian Sutton

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