Last night — April 4th 2016— the project team presented the status of the Ashland High Speed Rail program to the citizens of Hanover County. The meeting was interesting and well managed but little new information was imparted. However, one item did catch my attention. It was noted at least twice that the Tier I report was released in the year 2002. It is this report that establishes among other issues the philosophy that the High Speed Rail was to follow the existing right of way rather than the I-95 corridor.
But 2002 was a long, long time ago. It was the year that that first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was released. The 9/11 attacks were a recent memory. Prior to our meeting at the Patrick Henry high school the stage had just been used by high school students to rehearse a musical performance. In the year 2002 these students were just four years old.
My first reaction to the ‘2002’ statement was the obvious one: how can the project team justify current decisions based on studies that were done not long after the birth of these high school students? Has nothing changed since then? The question is, of course, rhetorical. The profound changes that have taken place in our economic, social and political environment fully justify the actions being taken by some citizens to learn more about the contents of the Tier I document. I have worked as an engineer on large projects in the process industries (chemicals, refining, offshore oil and gas). I cannot imagine that a large oil or chemical company would base investment decisions on a document published so long ago. (And I would have thought that the same would apply to CSX, which is also a profit-making entity.)
But my concern with the 2002 date goes beyond basing decisions on old analyses. An even more fundamental issue is that its conclusions are based on technology of the late 1990s.
Let us consider what was going on that time.
- GPS had just been introduced to civilians in 2000.
- The cell phone was still a novelty.
- The Apple Macintosh computer was just catching on.
- Windows XP was still in development.
It is improbable that the writers of the 2002 Tier I report would have considered these looming developments in their thinking. Yet now they are passé.
The “No Build” Option
Most of the talk to do with high speed rail in Ashland has been to do with the location of the new tracks. Yet few seem to consider that, with the technological developments that have occurred since the late 1990s, it may be possible to achieve many of the project’s goals without building any rails at all. One example of this way of thinking was discussed in previous post — What’s the Problem? In it was suggested that the technology used for driverless cars might allow trains to travel at greater density and greater speed without jeopardizing safety. Is this possible? I simplly don’t know, but it is worth consideration.
I have spent many years designing and analyzing offshore oil and gas platforms; the level of sophistication of technology in that industry is extraordinarily high. This means that any oil company that tried to find and extract oil using twenty year old technology would soon be out of business. But, as an outsider looking in, it does not appear as if the railroad business is as change-driven.
“Make America Great Again”
The above title is the most well known political slogan of the current election season. What does the author mean by it? Most of us assume that he is referring to a time period when the country was strong and had no problems (whenever that was). But a much more satisfying answer is that America got to be great when innovators such as Steve Jobs developed a vision of what might be.
In any business there is a time for innovation and there is a time for incremental improvement. Each has its place. The following quotation is attributed (probably wrongly) to Henry Ford.
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
I am sure that CSX and Amtrak are incorporating new technology into their locomotive and traffic management systems, and that many of these improvements are not visible to the casual observer. Still, it is legitimate to wonder if we are spending too much time trying to find faster horses.
It is recommended that the project team put together a task force to explore technological options that would:
- Meet the project’s goals for increased speed, reliability and capacity.
- Do this without installing extra tracks.
- Do it quickly.