Preliminary Thoughts

Amtrak_Keystone_Corridor_Rosemont_CurveI have been asked to provide a review of the discussions to do with the impact of the high speed rail project on the Town of Ashland. Like everyone else I am still getting up to speed on this proposed project but here are some initial thoughts.

 

Options
The principal source of information is the The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation at http://www.dc2rvarail.com/. They are proposing a high speed rail system that would go from Washington D.C. to the Carolinas. They project that rail traffic (freight and passenger) will double in the next ten to twenty years. Regarding Ashland there are three choices.

  1. Create a new line east of town along the existing Buckingham Branch line.
  2. Create three tracks (with overhead high voltage cables and high fencing) through the center of town.
  3. Create a new line west of town.

The first option — Buckingham Branch — has, I am told, been rejected. Two explanations have been offered. The first is that it is too costly (two bridges over I-95). Another is that it would affect ‘Cultural Resources’. I have requested a copy of the report that was written to do with this option but have not seen it yet. I would like for us all to carefully review its conclusions and findings.

Maps to do with the second option — straight through town — are shown here and here. It would appear as if the third rail would either be in a trench between the two existing rails or it would be elevated. Moreover, not only would there be a third track, I assume that there would also be high voltage overhead wires and tall fences to prevent people crossing the tracks. How this would work with regard to Ashcake Rd. and Hwy 54 is not clear.

The third option — west of town — can be seen in four maps, of which this is one.

Safety
I have two concerns with regard to the second option (“Straight through town”). The first is cultural; the second is to do with safety.

With respect to safety, trains are generally a safe method of transport. But accidents do occur — there have been at least two involving high speed trains in the last two years leading to 120 deaths. If we double the amount of traffic on our tracks and the trains are moving much faster than now then the chance of an event goes up significantly. Moreover, the impact of such an event could be very serious given the closeness of homes, businesses and pedestrian traffic.

Follow Up
As we note in https://ashlandrail.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/january-8th-2016-deadline/ please submit your comments to DRPT before January 8th.

Ian Sutton

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9 thoughts on “Preliminary Thoughts

  1. Over 10 years ago when the topic of a high speed rail was introduced I asked our then Town Council how the Town of Ashland would benefit from this idea and no one could really give me a concrete answer. I could not envision how passengers using this rail would add to our economic base to offset the demise of the Town by placing rails below or above the existing tracks, not to mention an unsightly fence. Numerous efforts by townspeople and local businesses have been made to refurbish and attract interest to the downtown area, many of which surround the tracks, to local and outside pedestrians through seasonal special events, and numerous activities “along the tracks.” A high speed rail will only benefit commuters and the railroad, but it will kill the spirit of Ashland. I ask the same question I did 10 years ago – how will Ashland benefit? Lou Ann Jewell

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    1. Lou Ann:

      I do not see how this proposed project will benefit Ashland. If trains continue to stop here then I presume that the journey time to D.C. will be reduced slightly. But that’s about all.

      Ian

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  2. Kathy:
    Thanks for widening the discussion.

    It was my understanding that passenger trains will continue to stop here. Have you heard something different?

    It would make sense to route the high speed train to the west of Ashland and to continue the mixed freight/passenger service on the existing track. Maybe they could extend the existing VRE service, which currently extends to Spotsylvania (http://www.vre.org/service/map/) , all the way to Richmond.

    Ian

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  3. High-speed rail, at whatever speed, seems to be an inevitability — not withstanding self-driving vehicles. The increasing volume of traffic on Interstate 95 is not sustainable.
    My best guess is that if Ashland continues to have rail service, it more likely would be a slower, auxiliary line, playing the same role that U.S. 1 currently plays for I-95.
    The requirements of high-speed rail as I understand them — high fencing, and related unwelcome infrastructure — could be more of an intrusion for the town than a help, although much more information is needed for any judgment about that.
    In future times, technology may provide a speedier ride on existing rails, without the intrusions that seem to accompany high-speed rail at the present.
    But predicting the future is perilous, so perhaps one good strategy would be to prepare for all eventualities, or at least as many as we know about now.
    The laggard pace of government decision making leads me to believe that a space port may arrive about the same time as high-speed rail.

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    1. Gary:

      Thanks for your comment. As I learn more about this topic it seems that a true “High Speed Rail” has three elements:

      1. Speeds up to 300 kph (180 mph).
      2. High voltage overhead cables.
      3. Freight and passenger trains do not share the tracks.

      What is being proposed here does not meet any of the above criteria in spite of the title ‘Washington, D.C. to Richmond, VA Southeast High Speed Rail project’.

      I have just returned from a business trip to South Korea — they have a great train system but I don’t think that it is technically-speaking ‘high speed’. What they have, and what I am sure most of us would like to see here, are trains that are frequent, reliable and on-time. (They do not mix freight and passenger.)

      The short term issue that has created concern is the idea of putting a third rail through Ashland. If rail traffic were to grow as you suggest then it would make much more sense to run a “high speed” line around Ashland and for us to retain our existing service (or maybe to extend VRE to Richmond).

      Ian

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  4. While the DRPT is calling this “High Speed Rail,” it’s actually something called “Higher Speed Rail,” which won’t go over 90 mph. I don’t believe these “Higher Speed Rail” trains require overhead cables, they’re just regular trains travelling at higher speeds. Obviously, the trains can’t go through Ashland at this speed, which will pretty much defeat the idea of a Richmond-DC line that maintains the steady 90 mph goal (the other problem area is Fredericksburg). So I’m not surprised that a bypass in these areas is preferable to the DRPT. If a third track is added to the existing corridor through Ashland, the new trains will have to slow down to a safe speed, so a fence may not even be required. Then again, the ROW is so narrow in town, I can’t imagine that the added track won’t necessitate a fence for safety reasons since (potentially) there won’t even be Center Street to buffet pedestrians. Bottom line, we need to have lots of voices on record protesting any consideration of higher speed rail through the town of Ashland. I can’t find a single benefit.

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  5. Kathy:

    These discussions to do with the meaning of ‘High Speed’ may sound as if we are playing with words but I think that their importance is to do with cost. True High Speed Rail is hugely expensive. For example, the California project’s initial estimate was $33 billion. Now they are in the $68-98 billion range, with construction just commencing. And I heard informally that the Germans reckon that they could have received most of the benefits of high speed rail just by upgrading the existing express lines. This would have saved a lot of money.

    I go back to my Korean experience; the trains were comfortable, quite fast, punctual and frequent. That’s what we need. The express trains could bypass Ashland. If we wanted to catch one we would take the local (maybe VRE) to D.C. or Richmond and change there.

    Are the people in Fredericksburg having similar discussions to these?

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