Safety Impact #2: Tier I Evaluation


The proposed High Speed Rail project has generated much debate. But there is one aspect of the project about which there can be no debate: Safety. There is nothing more important than making sure that all those who ride the trains or who live or work near the tracks go home in the condition in which they arrived. All other issues — the environment, culture, historic farmland, old homes, profits — take second place to safety. Period. Full stop.

In a recent post it was noted that the safety issues to do with this proposed project cannot be taken for granted — indeed, there is a real chance that a train could leave the tracks at high speed. Were such an event to take place in a populated area such as the Town of Ashland the consequences could be momentous. And last year’s crash of Amtrak Train #188 shows that such events are plausible.

With these thoughts in mind available Tier I documents were reviewed to see how they analyzed safety. Certain parameters are basic to such an analysis. They include:

  • How is “acceptable safety” defined?
  • Have thorough investigations of similar projects and railroad systems been carried out in order to generate lessons learned?
  • What rules, regulations, reports and industry standards were consulted in order to ensure that the latest safety techniques are being used?
  • What methodologies were used for analyzing risk and safety?
  • What safety criteria were used when comparing one track option with another?

Tier I Analysis Matrix

In order to understand how Tier I decisions were made the simple matrix shown below was created. As data are added to the cells of the matrix it will be possible for those impacted by this project to assess the decision-making process in an organized and objective manner.

The matrix has four columns — one for each of the corridors discussed (the ‘East of Ashland’ option incorporates an upgrade to the Buckingham Branch line). There are five rows, some of which may be expanded. For example, ‘Cultural’ can include the destruction of historic homes, the loss of community created by tall fences and the desecration of historic sites. ‘Economic’ includes the losses that business in the Town of Ashland would sustain were the community to be bisected.


The final row — ‘Long-Term’ — is to do with the selection of a corridor that will be best in the coming decades. The choice of the Town of Ashland would be a bad one for the this category because speeds through town will always be restricted to 50 mph or so. There will never actually be “high speed” rail in Ashland. On the other hand selection of the I-95 corridor will allow for true high speed passenger trains (300 km/h). The existing tracks would be used for freight and commuter service between Richmond and D.C.

Formal Safety Analysis

The formal analysis of safety is a large topic — one that is outside the scope of this post. Nevertheless the Tier I documents should contain at least some formal safety analysis. One example of such an approach is the use of F-N curves such as that shown below (‘F’ stands for frequency of fatalities or injuries; ‘N’ represents the number of persons harmed). Such a curve is basically saying is that there is an inverse relationship between the frequency of events and the consequences of those events.


The sketch shows three zones:

  • Unacceptable risk;
  • Area of judgment; and
  • Acceptable risk.

At a minimum it can be expected that (a) the reports provide numerical values to define the zones, and (b) a relative ranking for each of the corridor options should be provided.

Tier I Review

The following documents were reviewed in order to understand how safety has been analyzed on Tier I of the proposed project. The paper trail is  tangled and the documents are still being evaluated. The following are initial findings to do with safety.

It must be stressed that there may be other documents. This research is not necessarily complete.

Environmental Impact Statement

Federal Register. October 23, 2014. Vol. 79. No. 205

This is the document that authorizes the Tier II process. It does not appear to provide significant information regarding the Tier I EIS (discussed below), nor does it provide guidance as to how safety is to be evaluated. The heart of the document is about two and a half pages long. It is supplemented by extensive paperwork documenting the meetings that were held in 2014.

Regarding the DC2RVA part of the project the following quotation is pertinent.

Additionally, this project will include preliminary engineering and environmental analyses for related capacity improvements on the CSXT Peninsula Subdivision in the Richmond area . . . on the Buckingham Branch Railroad from AM Junction through Doswell, VA, to the north, as well as two localities where specific improvements have not been identified: Elmont to North Doswell (through Ashland, VA) and Fredericksburg to Dahlgren (through Fredericksburg, VA and the Rappahannock River Bridge). These areas will be evaluated for station, track, and safety improvements as well as the feasibility of a third track. This project will involve further analysis of the alignment of the route selected through the 2002 Tier I EIS and Record of Decision, including the Buckingham Branch Railroad and the CSXT S-Line and A-Line routes from Greendale north of Richmond to Centralia south of Richmond.

Tier I EIS (Final Environmental Impact Statement)

This document contains the following sections:

  • Summary and Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3 Comments and Responses.
  • Appendix

The following quotation is from this document.

The most consistent community concern SEHSR Washington, DC to Charlotte, NC 1-16 Tier I Final Environmental Impact Statement (abbreviated format) expressed during the public hearings was safety.

Otherwise there are no significant comments to do with safety could be located.

Scoping Summary

This document is dated May 15, 2015. It consists of a report and appendices.

In the Comment Summary it is noted that 7% of the responses referred to Traffic/Safety.

Page 4-7 contains the following:

Comment: I am concerned that higher speed will lead to a great number of accidents.

Response: Safety is of paramount importance and will be a primary consideration in the development of improvement concepts. Safety analyses performed as part of the DC2RVATier II EIS will address the effectiveness of each proposed concept with regard to safety. In addition, Project improvements will include new and enhanced safety features such as road and rail grade separations and flashing lights and gates at roadway-rail at-grade crossings throughout the corridor as appropriate. 

Record of Decision for the Tier I Southeast High Speed Rail Project

Page 16 contains a statement that the project will improve “overall transportation safety”. No analyses or data are provided to substantiate this statement.  Otherwise there are no significant comments to do with safety.


Based on the Tier I documents reviewed — and it must be stressed that the review is still underway and there may be additional pertinent information not yet identified — three conclusions can be drawn.

  1. There does not appear to have been any formal safety analysis, such as the use of F-N curves to evaluate the safety issues associated with each corridor option.
  2. There are  few references to safety in any of the documents that were evaluated.
  3. Very little information is available to support the corridor selection decisions made in Tier I.

If readers of this post have additional hard information to do with safety and the Tier 1 process please provide it via the Comment section of this blog.

Given this background it is recommended that the project team retain a qualified risk analyst to review the safety impact of each of the corridor options.

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