Selling Nothing


The Virginian

This is the third in a three-part series of posts to do with the misleading use of the term “High Speed Rail”. The first post — HSR — showed that average train speeds after the project is complete will be a mere 52.5 mph — hardly “high speed”. Moreover, it will still be quicker to drive than to take the train when traveling from Richmond to Washington, D.C.


In the second post, Controlling the Narrative, we introduced a business lady who regularly travels from Richmond to Washington D.C.. She was excited to learn that the new High Speed Railway would whisk her along, reducing her journey time to less than an hour compared to the current 2 hr 20 min. When she then found out that the journey time will not actually be much different from now (just a 20 minutes saving) and that the train remains slower than driving she is regretful, even annoyed, at this missed opportunity. And the fact that the cost of the train journey would be nearly double that of driving crystallizes her opinion, especially when she has to add the time and expense associated with local travel at each end of the journey.

But then she sees the following sign and says to herself,

I hear that freight trains use much less fuel per ton of cargo than 18-wheelers. That’s good for the environment and it cuts back on our imports of oil from unfriendly nations. It also eases the traffic problems on I-95. I was disappointed to learn that the “High Speed Railway” is not actually a high speed railway but I still support the project. I’m sorry that people are losing their homes to this project but you can’t stand in the way of progress. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, you know.

The lady’s reaction is likely representative of the feelings of a typical citizen of Virginia who has very little knowledge of this project (which means virtually all the citizens). The new sign continues to cede the project narrative. It tells people that freight train service will be improving; that’s something that they want to hear.

Just Say Yes

The prominence given to the word ‘Stop’ in the sign raises two additional concerns. The first is that the action command goes nowhere. Our business woman has no involvement in or control of the project — there is no action for her to take. The second difficulty is that the message of the sign suggests conflict and dispute. By contrast, virtually all advertisements on television are positive in tone. They say,

Buy our product or service and something good will happen to you.

They could say,

If you don’t buy our product or service then your life will not be as good.

The two messages are, of course, flip sides of the same coin. But the response that they generate is totally different. The first succeeds as a narrative, the second fails.

The Challenge

The opponents of the project face a dilemma: they are ‘Selling Nothing’ (actually the ‘No Build’ option). They need to create a positive message that is cast in terms of the customer, not of the residents who will be affected by the new rail. How this could be done regarding “high speed” passenger travel has already been illustrated. Basically the narrative was changed from “Look at our exciting new means of transport that will change your business life” to “Nothing much has changed after all”.

The challenge that the opponents now face is how to create a new freight train narrative.

Codes and Standards

Next week in Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad we will take a first look at the Basis of Design that the project managers have chosen to adopt. It appears as if adding a third track through the center of Ashland will do more than add the width of the new track to what is present already; it will presumably mean that existing tracks will have to be brought up to today’s code. If this assumption is correct then the addition of a third track and the associated upgrade will probably have a greater impact than originally anticipated.

2 thoughts on “Selling Nothing

  1. I completely agree that just saying ‘stop’ CSX or ‘NO’ new rails is completely obstructionist and counter-productive to our goal of saving the community from undue damage. I do, however, believe there are positive alternatives that were not mentioned in this post.

    Someone at the April 4th ( meeting asked about why the tunnel option was eliminated and Emily Stock’s response was that the grading inclines would have to begin 1-2 miles on either side of town. I don’t think that is an adequate response given that those 1-2 miles on either side town are already owned by CSX and are in the existing right-of-way. Furthermore a western by-pass would already exceed that length. The question offers a positive alternative to all the other proposals which seem to provide zero benefit to the county.

    Emily Stock’s answer at the meeting implied that this option is physically possible on the engineering side of the equation but it is the financial cost of digging a tunnel compared to the financial cost of forcibly acquiring private property that resulted in the elimination of this proposal. Do you know of any other documents that explain why this proposal is no longer active? What is the process for re-activating a proposal that was eliminated?

    Would you please consider making a post about the tunnel option (with or without the park/greenway replacement) that would offer a positive alternative to the current active proposals.

    If your response is that the tunnel option provides no benefit to the overall project (i.e. the perspective of your hypothetical business woman,) then I counter with the fact that with a tunnel option the 35/40mph head-in speed limit will no longer apply and that a tunnel will actually permit increased average speeds and therefore decreased travel times. Compared to a by-pass the overall length of rail a train would need to travel would be less therefore decreasing travel times and engine fuel consumption.


  2. Weston:

    Thanks for your comment and suggestions.

    Next week’s post — Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad — takes our first look at engineering issues. The tunnel option certainly falls into that category. We do have some people looking into the Phase I Design Basis and their research may uncover information to do with the tunnel option. At the post ‘Notes of meeting with DRPT’ ( we note that this option had been removed from the list.

    I would imagine that it is much, much more expensive than other options, but I don’t have data.

    Some “top-of-the-head” reactions are:

    1) The tunnel would need exhaust vents that would rise above grade.
    2) Construction could create serious damage to old homes that were built a hundred and fifty years ago. In those days no one would have thought of seismically qualifying them.
    3) A below-grade excavation would face the same “grandfather” problems that a surface expansion will face.
    4) The associated publicity would definitely put Ashland at the Center of the Universe.

    If you know of a railroad construction specialist who would be willing to support us please let me know.


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