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).

Dear Ms. Stock:

Thank you for attending our recent meeting to do with the High Speed Rail project. It was a pleasure meeting you and your colleagues. As I expect you know I have posted my notes of the meeting at our blog[1]. Please let me know if there are any additions or corrections that you would like to make.

As I reflect on what was said I am concerned that the citizens of Ashland have not been provided enough information to do with Stage I of the project. My concerns fall into the following six areas:

  1. Eastern Bypass option
  2. The I-95 option
  3. Historic Resources
  4. Cost
  5. Safety
  6. Effectiveness

1. Eastern Bypass
It is our understanding that the eastern bypass option — possibly using the existing Buckingham Branch line — has been rejected. Please could you provide the analysis that lead to that decision; I have heard verbally there a report on this matter, and have requested a copy of that report, but have not yet had a reply.

I am told that there are two reasons for the decision not to use the eastern bypass. The first is that it would destroy too many “cultural resources”; the second is that it would be too costly.

2. I-95
The comments to do with the eastern bypass can be repeated with regard to the I-95 corridor. It was stated in last week’s meeting that it is impractical to run the road and rail together. This surprised me — there are many such examples from around the world. Indeed, there is an example just a few miles to the south of us as you can you see from the picture below.


3. Historic Resources
Slide 13 of your presentation[2] discussed Historic Resources. It was stated that the Town of Ashland does not fall under the protection of this designation according to the appropriate Federal agency. This appears prima facie to be surprising. A high proportion of the comments to do with this project have stressed the historic nature of our town.

Can you give us more detail as to the research that was done to lead to the conclusion that we are not in an Historic Area?

4. Cost
One of the responses to do with both the eastern and I-95 options is that they are too costly. This opens up a number of questions.

  1. Is there an absolute threshold for cost above which the project will not be funded?
  2. What criteria are used to compare dollar costs with the subjective value to do with cultural items such as the loss of irreplaceable historical buildings?
  3. Similarly, what economic value does the project assign to safety (see below)?

5. Safety
I am a chemical engineer and I have spent half my career working on risk and safety management analysis in heavy industry. I have also written a number of books on these topics (Process Risk and Reliability Management[3] being an example.) I have looked into the safety issues to do with this proposed project. Initially I did not expect to find any significant problems because the carriage of freight by rail has a good reputation for safety. But, as I dug deeper I was surprised as to what I found with respect to high speed rail. In my recent letter to the Ashland Town Council[4] I noted that there had been at least four crashes involving high speed trains in the last four years with a total death toll of at least 132 persons.

Since then I have researched last year’s crash in Philadelphia of Train #188 last year[5]. At this point it is probably fair to say that no one knows the root cause of that tragedy. And even as I write these words the German authorities are reporting on a crash in Bavaria involving at least 10 fatalities and many serious injuries.

I reiterate: train travel is safe. But there are factors that make our situation more troublesome than most. These factors include:

  • Projections are that both freight and passenger travel are going to double in volume in coming years. Having so many trains materially increases the chance of a serious event.
  • Freight and high speed passenger trains will be using the same tracks. This is unusual and a concern.
  • Trains through Ashland will be traveling faster than they do now.
  • Most high speed trains go through open countryside. In the case of Ashland this is not the case. Were there to be a serious derailment it highly likely that homes or businesses could be destroyed, as you can see from the picture below which is of the Train #188 crash. It shows how far the cars can travel when they leave the track. In Ashland not only are homes and businesses already close to the tracks the proposal to add a third track would make them even closer.

Emergency workers look through the remains of a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania May 13, 2015. Rescue workers on Wednesday sifted through twisted metal and debris from the wreck of the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia, killing six people and injuring scores of others, as investigators began reviewing data to determine the cause of an accident. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson - RTX1CTF0

Was a quantitative risk analysis carried out in Stage I in order to compare the safety of the various options?

6. Project Effectiveness
There is no universally agreed-upon meaning for the term “High Speed Rail”. But generally I would expect such as system to have at least the following attributes:

  • Straight-away speeds of 300 km/h (185 mph);
  • Powered by high voltage overhead catenary wires; and
  • No mixing of passenger and freight.

The proposed system does not meet any of these criteria. In fact, the organization Virginians for High Speed Rail[6] state that their goal is,

  • 90 minute travel time between Washington and Richmond.
  • 75 mph average travel speed
  • 90 percent on-time performance level

The current Amtrak timetable shows the following from Staples Mill to Washington, D.C.

  • 135 minute travel time
  • 48 mph speed

We do not have data regarding current reliability but many of the residents of Ashland do take the train to D.C. regularly. Based on their experience it would appear that the current reliability is better than 75%.

A mere 33% reduction in travel time would hardly seem to justify the cost and upheaval associated with this project.

As you can see there is a concern that many of the critical issues to do with Stage 1 have not been properly presented and explained to the public. Therefore I would be grateful if you could share the Stage I analyses and reports with us.

If it would make sense to have a meeting to discuss these items in more depth please let me know and I would be pleased to arrange a meeting.

Yours truly,

Ian Sutton



8 thoughts on “Stage I Questions

  1. Mr. Sutton,
    I am a resident in the path of the proposed Western bypass high speed rail. I ask that the Town of Ashland unite with the residents of the bucolic rural West to preserve our beloved Ashland area. There are family farms, churches, and homes that will be affected, some of them blown off of the map, should this railway plow through. I agree that the I-95 corridor should be the focus for the high speed rail. As you illustrated, many cities already utilize the land as it is already cleared and has infrastructure. I cannot imagine routing the train in the center or along the side of I-95 would be any more expensive than either of the other proposed routes.


  2. Carey:

    Thanks for your comment.

    As you can tell from my post I am very concerned as to the lack of reporting on the Stage I conclusions. I am a chemical engineer and have carried out risk management work in heavy industry for much of my career (here is a book I wrote: I want to see the Stage I analysis so that I can review it with a very sharp pencil.

    Regarding the I-95 option, I suspect that it would be a considerably more expensive than running a track through open farmland. However this response begs two questions:

    1. What do we mean by “too expensive”? Is there a cost threshold, and, if so, what is it and how was it derived?
    2. How do they compare dollar costs with subjective costs such as the loss of historical sites?

    I did receive a brief reply to my letter which I will probably publish. Basically it told me ‘what’ decisions were made regarding Stage I. Those I already know. What I want to know is ‘how’ they reached those decisions.

    Ian Sutton


  3. Below is the response that I received from the High Speed Rail project team (WordPress removes most formatting but the words are the same). Below their response is my reply to their response.

    What it boils down to is that they have told us that they rejected the Eastern Branch and Buckingham Branch options. That we knew already. But what I wanted to know is how they reached that decision.


    From: DC to Richmond South HSR Team []
    Sent: Thursday, February 11, 2016 9:18 AM
    To: Ian Sutton
    Subject: DC2RVA: Response to Your Comment

    Mr. Sutton,

    Thank you for your comment. The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor Tier I Environmental Impact Statement considered optional routes for establishing higher speed passenger rail in the corridor. The Tier I EIS concluded that the preferred alternative was to develop high speed passenger rail services incrementally, taking advantage of existing rail corridors. Therefore, the DC2RVA Tier II EIS is focusing on use of the existing CSX rail corridor between Washington D.C. and Richmond.

    In recognition of the possible impacts to the Town of Ashland from adding a track to the existing two-track corridor, the DC2RVA preliminary alternatives development process considered constructing a rail bypass around Ashland. Two bypass routes to the east and one bypass route to the west were evaluated. The eastern bypass routes were not considered feasible for further study – however the western bypass route has been recommended for further study in the Tier II Draft EIS. In addition, the use of the Buckingham Branch Railroad to the east of Ashland for passenger rail service was also considered during the screening process and was not considered feasible for further study.

    Washington, D.C. to Richmond Southeast High Speed Rail Team

    Thank you for your reply.

    The purpose of my letter was not to ask about the results of the Tier 1 study — we knew those already. I wrote the letter to ask for the documentation, analyses and reports that make up the Tier 1 decision making process.

    Ian Sutton


    1. Ian, Do you have any reservations of my posting a link to your blog on the Facebook page “No High Speed Rail” ? And vice versa? Your blog seems to be the most organized and complete. I regret that information is fragmented in our sphere. As comprehensive as we can make the availability of any information regarding the railway, the more our community will be informed.


  4. Of course I don’t mind. In fact I think that a couple of links have been posted already. I decided to join Facebook so that I can post comments, although I am highly cautious about their security and privacy. Once I get access to that forum I will post a link to it from my blog, along with my critique of what I see there.

    What I am doing with the blog is as follows.

    • I try to present the facts available to me in a neutral manner. Occasionally I hear information that is interesting but I choose not to post unless I have good references.
    • I oppose running a third track through Ashland but I am not opposed to High Speed Rail in principle. (However what the DRPT is proposing isn’t “High Speed Rail” — see my Point 6. in Stage I Questions at We are going through all this fuss for a mere 33% reduction in travel time?
    • I went to the Facebook page. I picked up on a lot of resistance but it seems to lack focus. It is absolutely crucial that the Tier I EIS be shared with us. Otherwise people are guessing.


    1. Thanks, Ian. I will look forward to your input on the Facebook page as I believe it will enlighten and unite those in the community.


    2. Ian,

      You are absolutely correct the Facebook page does lack focus and leadership. I’ve tried to maintain control the best that I can. It’s sole purpose by the person who created it was to serve as a media outlet helping to create awareness very quickly. Facebook is just a tool and yes I’m not surprised you picked up on a lot of resistance there.

      Now that I have found your blog I feel much better.


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