Town Council Meeting: March 1st

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It has been suggested that we form an Ashland High Speed Rail Task Force.

This idea will be presented at the Citizens Input section of the next Town Council meeting, March 1st 2016 at 7:00 p.m.

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House Bill No. 613

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House Bill No. 613 will make it easier for the Department of Public Transportation to acquire land. Here is the information that I have. Please feel free to provide additional information or comments. The title of the bill is,

A BILL to amend and reenact §§ 2.2-1147 and 2.2-1149 of the Code of Virginia, relating to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation; acquisition of real estate and rights-of-way.

The current status of the bill is shown here. It shows:

  • Introduced. Jan 11, 2016
  • Passed House. Feb 12, 2016
  • Passed Senate. Vote scheduled for Feb 24, 2016
  • Signed Into Law. No Date

The text of the bill can be viewed here.

Request for Detailed Information

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On February 10th of this year I sent a letter to the project team asking for more information to do with the decisions that were made regarding the Stage I options. The reply was not sufficiently detailed so I submitted the following to the dc2rvarail Comment page today.

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Please provide me with a copy of the reports, analyses, correspondence and presentations that were made prior to the Stage 1 decision as described in your slidepack ‘Ashland Alternatives’ presented at the meeting at Ashland Town Hall on February 5th of this year (https://ashlandrail.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/notes-of-meeting-with-drpt/). In particular I would like to be informed as to the decision processes that led to the exclusion of the Buckingham Branch/eastern line and the I-95 corridor options.

On February 10th 2016 I mailed a letter to Ms. Stock outlining this request in detail. In my judgment I did not receive a sufficiently detailed response. I cannot find a way to attach documents to this form submittal so I am providing a link to that letter:

http://www.stb07.com/downloads/dc2rva-stage-1-letter.pdf

Thank you for your help.

Ian Sutton

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What’s the Problem?

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Before undertaking a large, expensive, drawn-out project such as the High Speed Rail project all stakeholders should back up and think through the problem that they are trying to address. It is very easy to slip into the, “Here’s the Solution — Where’s the Problem?” mindset.

The California Drought

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The importance of being clear about objectives came to mind when I read this article from KCBS. Evidently those concerned about California’s water problems are seeking to transfer the money budgeted for the High Speed Rail project to programs that help conserve water. The logic seems to be as follows.

  1. California is in the midst of a decades-long drought.
  2. Chronic water shortages will lead to a gradual but inexorable decline in all kinds of commercial activity, particularly manufacturing and agriculture.
  3. This will cause people and businesses will move out of the State.
  4. Hence the justification high speed rail dwindles since there will be fewer people to move around the State.

In other words, the existential crisis faced by California is not the lack of fast trains; it is chronic drought. Therefore, if the High Speed Rail team in California wishes to advance their agenda they should not say, “Support High Speed Rail for faster and more economical transport”. They should say, “Here is how High Speed Rail will help reduce drought-related problems”. In other words, they should frame their project to address the truly fundamental problem faced by Californians. Then they will get buy-in.

The problems faced by the economy in central Virginia are different from those in California. But it is fair to ask if we are making the same mistake as the Californians and jumping to a solution before defining the core problem and then working out a range of answers. In our case the problem is not “Lack of High Speed Rail”. The problem is, “How do we move people along the eastern corridor quickly and economically with minimal environmental and cultural damage?

Driverless Cars

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One response to the above question is to pursue a policy of incrementalism rather than starting a large, brand new project. In other words, rather than spending enormous amounts of money on a highly disruptive grassroots project consider improving the system that we have now in order to achieve the same goals through the use of proven technologies or of technologies that will be plausibly developed in the next few years. Driverless cars provide an example.

It appears as if driverless cars are on the verge of widespread acceptance. The technology is rapidly maturing and some of them are already on the roads. So what is their relevance to the High Speed Rail project? Well, it is not hard to imagine that, in the time span of this project (10-20 years), that this same technology could be applied to trains. It would allow trains (with or without a human driver) to move faster through non-built up areas and for the trains to operate much closer to one another, thus increasing both speed and capacity without a need for additional track and without jeopardizing safety.

Conclusions

It is important to understand that this post is not about the California drought, nor is it about driverless cars or trains. The post makes two basic points:

  1. We need to carefully define what the goals of the project are in the context of the overall concerns and needs of the citizens of Virginia. High speed trains are not the goal — they are one possible solution to achieving the goal.
  2. We should examine ways of achieving those goals through incremental improvements and changes in order to achieve the “No Build” option (Slide # 19 in this slidepack).

An interesting challenge for the project would be to set up a Red Team whose challenge would be,

Figure out how to achieve the goals of the high speed train project without building any new track.

Could it be done? I don’t know. But it would be a fascinating challenge.

Jevons Paradox

William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882)

I used to live in Houston, Texas and frequently drove on the I-10 West (the Katy Freeway). It is a major commuter highway and was generally badly congested. About five years ago they expanded the Katy Freeway such that the intersection with Beltway 8 is now 26 lanes across. (There used to be a two track railroad on the corridor but they tore it up to make room for more traffic lanes).

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The Katy Freeway

I recall that, once construction was complete, travel was much faster and more convenient. But last week I was talking to a colleague who drives the Katy Freeway every day. He was complaining that the traffic was now as bad as ever and could not understand why. The answer to his concern was actually spelled out 150 years ago by William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882). Jevons lived in England at a time when industry was expanding rapidly. In his book The Coal Question: an Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal-mines, published in the year 1865, he noted that the coal-burning factories of his time were using fuel more efficiently but, ironically, this led to a greater overall use of coal. A modern expression of his paradox is:

  1. People buy fuel-efficient cars to save money.
  2. Because their cars are more efficient they drive more miles.
  3. Hence the overall consumption of fuel increases.

The same principle applies to the Katy Freeway. Once commute times were reduced developers built many more homes in the Katy area. So more and more people used the newly expanded freeway to the point where it is now as congested as it was ten years ago.

So how does this affect the High Speed Rail project? Well, one of the justifications for the project is that it will relieve some of the traffic pressure on the I-95. People will leave their cars at home and take the new train service. But Jevons Paradox, which is really an expression of the Law of Unintended Consequences, tells us that this will encourage developers to build more homes in suburban Virginia and Maryland, and more businesses will move into the D.C. area. The upshot will be that the I-95 will become more crowded than it is now.

I am curious to know if the High Speed Rail project team has factored the Jevons Paradox into their calculations and what the plans are for managing the potential increase in traffic congestion that this project will create.

Town Hall Meeting: February 18th

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A Town Hall Meeting hosted by Congressman Dave Brat was held in the Hanover Town Hall on February 17th, 2016. Here are my notes. Please feel free to add your own comments and additional information.

Thank you.

Ian Sutton

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Location: Hanover Town Hall
Date/Time: February 17th, 2016. 7:00 p.m.
Attending:

  • Congressman Dave Brat
  • Chairman of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors, Bucky Stanley
  • Approximately 200-220 members of the public

The meeting opened at 7:00 p.m. The discussion to do with High Speed Rail started at 7:35 p.m. and lasted for approximately 35 minutes. The format was an unstructured Question and Answer session.

Some of the highlights of the discussion included:

  • By show of hands more than 90% of the attendees showed an interest in the High Speed Rail project.
  • Representative Brat noted that the federal government may provide funding but that many of the decisions to do with the project are made at the State and local levels.
  • Many people expressed a concern that the first they heard about the project was when surveyors placed stakes on their property. These stakes are to be used for aerial surveys.
  • Mr. Stanley stated that the Board of Supervisors has not been briefed on this project.
  • Representative Brat suggested that the press hold a forum.
  • By show of hands no one expressed support for the project, either through Ashland or on the west side.

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Here are some additional thoughts.

The first phase of the project is divided into four stages. They are:

  1. Stage I Screening – Fatal Flaw
  2. Stage II Screening – Order of Magnitude Impacts
  3. Stage III Screening – Infrastructure Constraints
  4. Stage IV Screening – Area Options

Stage I includes ‘Draft Purpose and Need’ and ‘Alternatives’. It was during Stage I that many of the critical decisions, such as not to use the Buckingham Branch line or the I-95 corridor, were made.

Stage I is complete. However we have not received any documentation to do with the analyses and studies that were conducted (see Stage I Questions). We have been told what was decided; we have not been informed as to how it was decided.

According to the published schedule the project team is now working on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the draft of which is due for release in the third quarter of 2016.

Freight Traffic

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One of the justifications for the High Speed Rail project was an anticipated increase in freight traffic — a 50% increase by the year 2040, as I recall (I cannot locate the source on the dc2rvarail  web site – maybe someone could help me). This increase would require that a third track be installed.

But projections of a large increase in freight traffic may turn out to be inaccurate. One of the more important cargoes is coal yet, as the chart below shows, coal traffic by rail in the United States decreased by 15% during 2015; from January 2015 to January 2016 it is down 31%. It is questionable if coal traffic will return to its earlier levels given environmental pressures and the economics of natural gas.

Coal Traffic by Rail 2015

If the price of fuel goes up then there may be a gradual shift from eighteen wheelers to the trains. Still, I wonder if we will see the increases that are projected.

Stage I Questions

Stages in the development of the High Speed Rail project

Last week we held a meeting at the Town Hall to discuss the impact on Ashland of the various High Speed Rail options. The presentation started by showing that the project is divided into four phases, as shown in the slide. We were informed that the ‘Stage 1 Screening — Fatal Flaw’ is complete.

Very little documentation has been presented showing how the Stage I decisions were arrived at. Therefore I have written a letter to The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) asking for copies of the Stage I documentation. (A .pdf copy of the letter can be downloaded here).

The body of the letter is shown below (with some formatting changes).

Continue reading Stage I Questions