Iowa Derailment

On Monday, May 16th 2021 a freight train derailed near the town of Sibley, Iowa. The following is from CNN.

Union Pacific crews are readying to remove rail cars after a train derailment and fire prompted evacuations in northwest Iowa on Sunday, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver said Monday. “We know the impacted cars were carrying hydrochloric acid, potassium hydroxide and asphalt. The derailment happened at around 2 p.m. Sunday in Sibley and involved an estimated 47 cars. The train crew was not injured.” Tysver said

CNN. Joe Sutton.

The cause of the derailment is under investigation, but first reports indicate that it involved a bridge collapse. The fire itself was caused by diesel fuel.

This incident caught my eye for three reasons. First, it shows that, were such an event to take place in Ashland, it would likely impact the homes and businesses in our neighborhood.

Second, if bridge collapse is indeed a factor then the incident highlights the need for improved infrastructure — a topic that has been much talked about in recent months. If the cause of the incident was indeed a bridge collapse one has to wonder what infrastructure improvements are needed in our community.

The third factor in the incident that caught my attention was the fact that the train included tank cars of potassium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid (base and acid). Were those two chemicals to mix the consequences would be very serious indeed.

Sibley Iowa Train Derailment

McMurdo House

Last week we published a post McMurdo House: State Register to do with the historical preservation of 713 S. Center St. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has published a similar article: Ashland’s Macmurdo House, 163 years old, listed on state landmarks register.


The circa 1858 Macmurdo House, situated along Ashland’s picturesque Center Street, was recently added to the Virginia Landmarks Register, the state’s official list of places of historic, architectural, archaeological and cultural significance. It also has been submitted to be considered for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

Named for the family who built it — Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad Treasurer Cunningham Waldrop Macmurdo — it’s one of more than 200 properties within Ashland’s designated Historic District, and one of the earliest homes built in the newly established Town of Ashland, incorporated that same year.

The home’s history reportedly includes a visit from Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson and his senior officers in the days leading to the Seven Days’ Battle in 1862. At one point, it served as a Civil War hospital.

Derailed tanker held toxic chemical

The Richmond Times-Dispatch for December 19, 2020 published the following report to do with a derailment in downtown Roanoke.

The report describes damage to a car containing liquid sulfur. Sulfur is a yellow solid at room temperatures. It is used to make sulfuric acid (the acid in our car batteries). The sulfur is liquefied for transportation and loaded into tank cars. (Its melting point is 115.2 °C / 239.4 °F.)

Liquid sulfur is a hazardous chemical. We there to be a spill, the high temperature liquid could cause severe burns. Also, were it to catch fire, it would generate sulfur dioxide (SO2) fumes that are toxic.

Historic Designation

The recent change in administration is likely to revive interest in high speed rail.  Therefore we need to keep the “No High Speed Rail” project active.

One reason for opposing a third track through the town of Ashland is that it would damage the historic properties that are located on or near the tracks. Attached is a copy of a letter that I received from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources  to do with placing the Macmurdo House on the National Register of Historic Places. I replied expressing my strong support for the proposal.

I urge others to do the same.

CSX Traffic

Switching Yard Decatur Illinois

My study overlooks the tracks running through Ashland. A subjective observation is that the number of intermodal/container freight trains is declining. Moreover, the trains seem to be shorter, on average, and we see very few of the double-stacked containers that were introduced a couple of years ago.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (it is behind a paywall) shows how the freight carriers, including CSX, have introduced Just in Time (JIT) techniques for minimizing the amount of time that freight cars spend in switching yards. The railroads are moving toward a passenger-style system in which it is the responsibility of the customer to get his goods to the train depot to meet a schedule rather than have the railroad assemble trains based on what the customer sends to them.

Such a system such as this could create shorter trains — the railroad managers may create such trains just to get cars out of the switching yards and to “declutter” the system. But JIT would not change the overall amount of traffic. If anything, it may increase the number of cars as customers respond to the more efficient service.

Data to do with traffic is available from the Surface Transportation Board. As time permits, it would be good to dig into this information to determine if the subjective impression to do with reduced traffic is borne out by hard numbers.

Amtrak’s Long-Term Vision

Acela train Ashland High Speed Rail

Our last post to do with passenger rail service between Richmond and Washington, D.C. referred to a Richmond Times-Dispatch report that discussed the possibility of having hourly Amtrak service between the two cities. The Washington Post has just published an article on the same theme.

The natural question that citizens of Ashland have is, “How can they fit more trains on the existing tracks?” (One answer may be that freight traffic is declining — that will be the topic of a future post.)

In addition to questions to do with track capacity, if ever we get frequent, reliable train service to northern Virginia, the impact on the quality of life in Ashland (both good and bad) needs to be considered.