Peeling the Onion


I started this blog on Christmas Eve last year when I learned of the possibility that a third track may be punched through the center of the Town of Ashland. My objective then is the same as it is now,

Use objective data and rational analysis to challenge the third track through Ashland option.

My arguments fall into three major categories:

Train accidents, particularly derailments, happen surprisingly frequently. Squeezing a third track through town — and also increasing the number of trains — is unacceptably risky and probably in conflict with code. The only way of making this option safe is to wreak wholesale destruction on the town in order to provide adequate separation distances.

The third track option would lead to the destruction of many civil war era homes and buildings.

Irreversible damage to the business heart of the town of Ashland would be caused by the project. It would also damage to Randolph-Macon College.

All that I have learned in the last five months reinforces these arguments. The third rail option is unsafe and destructive.

Background Justification

Although my focus has been on protecting the Town of Ashland I, along with many other residents, have looked into the justification for the overall project; we are becoming increasingly puzzled as to its overall rationale. Some of the possible reasons for the project are discussed below.

“High Speed Rail”


First we took the title of the project — “High Speed Rail” — at face value and assumed that the project would create a system of bullet trains whisking people along the north east corridor. We envisioned a business lady taking the train from Richmond to D.C., meeting her clients then back home. Since the journey time would be only one hour she would have a productive day. But if the round trip time is actually four hours — well maybe this project is not such a good idea after all.

But a few minutes of simple arithmetic demonstrated that the new system would hardly change the journey time between Richmond and Washington D.C. The new high speed, slick service that these travelers envision will continue to use the locomotives and passenger cars that trundle through our town every day. And an average speed of 52.5 mph from Richmond to D.C. is a parody of true high speed service.

So we needed to find another justification for the project.

Growth in Freight Traffic

The second justification for the increased rail capacity is that there will be a dramatic increase in the number and size of freight trains. Yet, as shown in Cognitive Dissonance publicly available data do not support this argument; rail freight traffic in recent years has hardly changed at all. Moreover, plausible economic projections indicate that freight traffic may actually go down.

Diverted Freight Traffic

A third possible reason is that freight traffic from other parts of the country will be diverted to our track.


There is an organization called Virginians for High Speed Rail. I do not pay attention to what they write, largely because some of the commenters at that site use inappropriate language. Nevertheless they do have a vision; it is,

Connecting Virginia to the rest of the east coast with reliable, safe, frequent, and fast passenger rail service.

Lord Kelvin ()
Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

Fair enough. But, as an engineer, I follow the advice of Lord Kelvin

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind . . .

Their vision needs to be quantified. In particular, they need to put a number on the word “fast”. 52.5 mph doesn’t do it. Their vision is “of a meager and unsatisfactory kind”.

My own vision is more on the following lines.

  1. A high speed passenger train corridor connecting Richmond with Washington, D.C. Straightaway speeds would be in excess of 180 mph and the journey time would be one hour. This corridor would be for dedicated high speed trains only (for engineering and operational reasons they cannot share track with freight and conventional passenger trains). This service would likely follow the I-95 corridor.
  2. Existing tracks would offer local train service similar to what we have now. Residents of Ashland would connect with the high speed train in either Richmond or D.C.
  3. The existing tracks would be used for freight. If additional freight capacity is needed then a bypass line around Ashland (either to the east or the west) would be needed.


What is badly needed for this project is a clear and quantified vision as to its purpose. That vision need to be supported by detailed, well-researched and defensible information. Instead, the more we peel back the onion the more surprises there seem to be.


Guest Post #3 – Details, Details


The following is a guest post from Bob Brown, a resident of Ashland. Mr. Brown served as town planner for the City of Philadelphia for many years and is currently on the Board of the Main St. Association of Ashland.

Editorial Comment: It is likely that the impact of a new track through Ashland would be considerably greater than Mr. Brown has shown here due to the need to bring all tracks up to modern code (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).

April 29, 2016

Friends and Neighbors:

The call for facts about the proposed “High Speed” Rail is fundamental. The following is my (initial) list of detail questions that everyone needs to know and have answered. Note that this list relates to Ashland (I assume some similar facts could be given for the Western route alternative.)

Note that they require several sets of evaluations:

  •             Railroad Engineering,
  •             Real Estate and Business Economics,
  •             Historic Analysis,
  •             Traffic and Pedestrian Analysis,
  •             Town Planning Analysis.
  •             College Planning Analysis

This is NOT merely a Railroad Engineering and Planning process…

Answers to these questions must be given before any position vote is taken, regarding the evaluation of possible train service changes in Ashland:


  •  Exactly how many homes and properties would lose any auto access (i think it is at least 12). These homes would have to be purchased and removed.
  • What will happen to the corner houses, once the East side street is closed? Will all those streets require Fire Engine turn-arounds, thus removing land from those properties?
  • Note that this assumes that the businesses on the East side of Downtown will have no front or street access. Will this not put them out of business? And, if this one side of Railroad Ave. is put out of business, and if there is only one south-bound traffic lane, how will the West side businesses survive?
  • What will be the functional (and visual) impact on the College when its main north-south frontage street is removed? (this could be a big question for Randolph Macon to consider.) Note that much of its on-street parking would also be eliminated,
  • How would Center St. & Railroad Ave. function when there is only one-way (South bound) traffic possible – in both the Downtown and residential areas (and at the College)?
  • Will fences be required – on both sides of the tracks? If so, will pedestrian crossings be eliminated, and the Town cut in half? If so, what will that do to the quality of life of the houses on the West side of Center St.? What is their future? What will the College do, since it now exists on both sides of the Tracks?
  • How can the existing Train Station continue to function when there are three rails?
  • What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • And – the biggest question of all: What will be the future of historic and economically thriving Ashland if all the properties along the tracks, and in the Downtown (and perhaps parts of the College) cease to function? Will our beloved Community no longer exist?


  • Exactly what are the “improvements”? Exactly what changes could they impose on the operation and quality of all three parts of Center St. and Railroad Ave.: Downtown, Residences, College?
  • What construction will take place, and how long will it take?
  • What are the projected number and size of freight trains that could come through Town? How is that different from what we experience now?
  • Will Amtrak still make stops in Ashland – or not?
  • Will – once again – pedestrian crossings be eliminated?
  • Will – once again – fences be required? If so, the same questions apply:

Elimination of pedestrian crossings (dividing Ashland in half)?

What would be the quality of life and the property values be for the houses on both sides of the tracks?

What would be our ability to shop in Downtown on both sides of the tracks?

What must the College do if pedestrian crossings are limited, since the campus now exists on both sides of the Tracks?

  • Once again – What will be the impact of all this on our historic buildings and Historic District?
  • What is will be the maximum speed permitted of all trains – especially including the “High Speed” rail?
  • Will the no-train-horn rule remain in effect as they pass through Town?

This may just be a start. Does anyone have other questions that we need to have answered before working out our position?

Bob (Brown)

PS: A detail: sometimes illustrations (diagrams, sketch views, sketch plans and street cross sections) help explain the issues. If Main Street, the Town, or the neighbors feel they would be a help, I would gladly do some.

Cognitive Dissonance


Groucho Marx (1890-1977) once said of himself, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” He is also credited with the words,

Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?

Which brings us to freight traffic on the railroad that runs through Ashland.

Project Justification

In the post HSR we concluded that,

The High Speed Rail Project is not a high speed rail project

By giving the project such a misleading title the project managers have seriously damaged their credibility. The only way in which that credibility can be restored is for them to provide a detailed and well-documented explanation as to the real justification for the project.

They have failed to do so.

Hence — given the lack of publicly available documentation — residents and business owners in Ashland can only speculate as to the purpose of the project. Otherwise we have a solution looking for a problem.

Some respond that the true purpose is to increase freight capacity. Although this statement is likely true it is difficult to find detailed up to date documentation that supports this assertion. Moreover, we are not provided with a definition for “increased freight capacity”. It could be,

Or any combination of the above. We don’t know.

They say that, “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”. If the project team is to have a second chance to regain trust it will need to provide much more information as to what is going on.

We hear anecdotally that freight traffic will grow by a large amount fueled by factors such as,

  • Expansion of ports in Virginia.
  • Increased capacity through the Panama canal.
  • Growth in the south east of the United States.

All of this is projected to create more inter-modal (container) traffic that will travel by train to the north east of the United States through central Virginia. Hence increased rail capacity is needed.

Freight Traffic

If growth in freight traffic is the key justification for the project then it is worth taking a first look at historical traffic and plausible projections for the future.


The Association of American Railroads report on overall freight traffic is shown in the chart below.


It appears as if there has been no statistically significant change to the tonnage hauled by American railroads over the last ten years.


During the last twelve months — a period when we are supposedly enjoying an economic recovery — freight traffic has fallen quite dramatically, as shown in the following chart.


Inter-modal traffic (containers) — the heart of the justification for this project — has fallen nearly 9% since 2015.

But a picture is worth a thousand words. The following picture shows 4 miles of mothballed freight locomotives parked alongside I-10 in Benson, Arizona (the picture was taken May 3rd 2016). The line stretches as far as the eye can see.


Coal Traffic

We have already looked at the decline in coal traffic; it was noted,

. . . 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

A Glance from the Window

I recently conducted a highly informal and subjective survey of people who have lived on or near the tracks for the last few years. I asked them if they thought that freight traffic had changed much. A few thought that there had been a decline and some felt that it was about the same. No one thought that there had been an increase. People who live on the tracks also noted that there are often large intervals between one train and another. The system does not appear to be overloaded. Furthermore these same people have seen a noticeable reduction in the number of coal trains suggesting that the decline in coal traffic discussed above may actually be even more severe than that shown in the chart.

Rail to Nowhere

It is probable that much of the justification for future increases in freight traffic is based on growth in world trade. A discussion of global economics is way, way outside the scope of this small town blog. Nevertheless, at a time when the Chinese economy is cooling — maybe even shrinking — it makes sense to give some thought to the very big picture. It seems as if assumptions of continued expansion of global trade are increasingly wobbly.

Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) once said,

Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

His insight could open up a totally new blog. But, in the meantime, it is vital that the project team convince everyone that they are not building a “Rail to Nowhere”.

Timely Information

The project team’s need to re-establish credibility also means that they must base their policies and actions on up to date information and analyses. As noted in the post 2002 this does not appear to be the case. They are in fact working with information generated almost a generation ago.

I have mentioned in earlier posts that my career has been in the oil and chemical industries. I visualize the following vignette occurring at my place of work. It is a conversation between an oil company executive (E.) and one of his project managers (P.).

P.   I propose that we build a new multi-billion dollar oil and gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
E.   Show me the data and analyses (safety, economic, environmental).
P.   It’s all here in this report.
E.   When was the report written?
P.   The year 2002.
E.   Get out of my office.


There is no conclusion to this post; there are too many loose ends.

It is likely that there will indeed be substantial growth in freight traffic through the Ashland area for macro economic reasons. But, given that these projections do not match what we see from our own windows “with our own lying eyes” it is reasonable to ask the project managers to provide the following information.

  • What are the projections for freight traffic for the next two decades?
  • What are the assumptions that lie behind those projections?
  • Do the projections assume constant economic growth at a time when many are wondering if such growth can continue?
  • The analyses that they have presented to the public are based on data that are almost two decades old. The world has changed since then. Do they plan to revisit their analyses with more up to date information?

The term cognitive dissonance can be defined as, “Being confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs”. There seems to be some of that going on here. The project team talks about large increases in freight traffic but there is little evidence on the ground that such increases are taking place. This is not to say that they are wrong. But it does mean that the project managers have an even greater responsibility to communicate with the people of Ashland and to tell them — in great detail — just what the projections for freight traffic show and how defensible those projections are.

Postscript #1

An article in the May 5th 2016 edition of the Herald-Progress suggests that the increased capacity is needed because CSX plans to divert traffic from existing lines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia on to the central Virginia line.

Problems and Predicaments

Ashland Town Hall

Yesterday the Town of Ashland held council elections. All four candidates were successful. Congratulations to all.

There was no competition for the open seats so the mood was generally amiable. Depending on the status of the rail project such amicability is less likely to be present in upcoming elections involving the town. By then many residents and business owners who have been rather detached from the discussions so far will begin to understand how this proposed project could destroy Ashland as we know it. They will not be so relaxed.

Prediction #1
Upcoming Ashland elections will be emotional and contentious if the 3rd track option is still on the table.

Prediction #2
Candidates will have to do more than simply express opposition to the project — citizens will demand detailed plans. (A starting point would be to stop using the phrase “High Speed Rail”.)

Prediction #3
The successful candidate(s) will understand that the rail project creates not a problem but a predicament.

The third prediction is worth thinking through. Town Council is experienced at solving problems such as rezoning a building or handling the impact of long-term hotel residency. Problems such as these (a) have solutions, (b) they are not existential (they do not fundamentally change the nature of the town), and (c) the solution can often be reversed if it does not work out.

The rail project, on the other hand, creates a predicament. A predicament (a) does not have a solution. Either the track is there or it’s not. Options such as “Minor Upgrades” are not realistic (see Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad).  Moreover, a predicament (b) is existential — it utterly transforms the nature of the town. Finally (c), the predicament cannot be reversed. Once the third track has led to the destruction of homes and businesses they can never be restored.



Next week’s post is entitled ‘Cognitive Dissonance’. I take a first look at projected changes in freight traffic. Various people have said that there will be a ‘”400% increase”. Can anyone provide me with a source for this number.


A Report and an Editorial


Two items recently reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch caught our attention.

Chemical Leak

The first was to do with a chemical leak from a derailed train in the Washington D.C. area.

With regard to our Increased Freight Traffic (IFT) project we have said from the beginning that safety must always be the top priority. Reports to do with accidents involving trains are coming in all too frequently, further emphasizing the need to keep a large separation between the tracks and the public. This cannot be done if the project engineers try to squeeze a third rail through Ashland.

Norfolk Southern Deal

The second report was an editorial that states that Norfolk Southern has received a $2 million grant from the State to keep 165 jobs in the State. This report raises the broader question as to whether the IFT project can make money without taxpayer input.

Cultural Impact #2: Not Your Grandfather’s Railroad


The impact of the proposed third track through the Town of Ashland can be organized into the following three  categories:

  1. Safety/Environmental;
  2. Cultural — including the loss of historic buildings and sites; and
  3. Economic.

We are publishing a series of posts outlining concerns to do with all three areas. Posts to date include:

This is the second post in the Cultural series (although it could also be considered to be a safety topic).

Help Needed

I have worked as a professional engineer on large projects for much of my career. Hence I am familiar as to how such projects are organized and managed. In particular, as a result of my book-writing activities, I have a reasonable grasp as to how engineering standards are developed and implemented. However my experience has been in the process industries (oil refineries, chemical plants, offshore oil and gas platforms). This HSR Project is, of course, to do with a different industry: railways. Therefore I request that anyone who has worked on the design or construction of a railroad expansion project such as this to critique the work that I have done and correct any errors or false assumptions.

Thank you.

Basis of Design


It is normal for project managers to create a document that summarizes the technical and engineering standards that they will be following for their project . They have to follow legal requirements, of course — of that there is no choice. But there is generally some flexibility as to which industry standards and practices are to be adopted. With regard to this proposed project the project team has published a 105 page document entitled the Basis of Design (BOD), dated February 24, 2015 (DRPT 2015).

Shown below is the first page of the BOD’s Table of Contents.

The design engineers must follow the standards that are provided in the BOD. Only in rare circumstances can the design engineers claim an exemption.

Development of Design Standards

For background it is useful to to understand how engineering codes and standards are developed and applied.

The Regulatory Processfra-logo-1

In the United States, the federal regulatory process starts when both Houses of Congress develop a law or statute. Generally, each House develops its own version. These are then sent to committee, where a compromise bill is agreed upon. This, in turn, goes to the President, who signs it (unless he chooses to use his power of veto). Once a statute becomes law, the affected agencies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in this case, develop specific regulations. It is the regulations, not the law itself, that companies are expected to follow. (The words “regulation” and “rule” are used synonymously in this post.)

Once the regulation has been written it is listed in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and indexed in the Federal Register. The public and other interested parties are invited to comment on this draft regulation. Following the implementation of a standard, the agency can modify it through Letters of Interpretation. If a person or organization disagrees with some part of the regulation, they can challenge it in court on the grounds that it does not meet the intent of the original Congressional statute. If the court agrees, the standard is implicitly changed.

This whole process is illustrated in the sketch below.


Engineering Standards

Arema-1Rules and regulations generally do not provide sufficient detail for engineers to make detailed design decisions. Therefore all industries have standards-setting bodies that develop  detailed guidance. For example, AREMA (the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association) published the 2016 Manual for Railway Engineering, Chapter 5 of which contains a Recommended Practice entitled Track (AREMA 2016) and which is probably the most relevant to these discussions.

Usually these engineering standards are not a formal legal requirement unless they are adopted into a regulation by reference. However, even when they are not legally required, failure to follow them is hard to justify.

 Ashland, Ashland

On page 18 of her book Ashland, Ashland Rosanne Shalf describes the history of the railroad in Ashland.

Workers laid the first twenty miles of single track to the Hanover site in 1836 . . . Workers began to lay double lines of track along the route in 1903.

(Shalf, 1994)

The first engineering standards in the United States were developed in the early years of the 20th century with an initial focus on boiler explosions. The newly formed American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), for example, published its first first boiler code in the year 1914. This means, therefore, that when the existing Ashland tracks were installed it is very unlikely that the engineers at the time had to worry about code to do with spacing requirements between the tracks and adjacent pedestrians and buildings. And, as the picture at the head of this post shows, there simply wasn’t the density of building and road traffic in the town as we have now.


Any project that involves upgrading an existing facility will likely face the challenge of “grandfathering” old designs. Standards generally become more stringent over time. But it is not practical to re-engineer an existing facility every time a new version of a standard is published. So it is normal for the facility to be “grandfathered”, i.e., it can remain “as is” and does not need to meet the latest code. An example in day-to-day life is to do with backup cameras on automobiles. It is likely that future rules will require that they be installed on all new cars but that old cars will not need to have them retrofitted.

In industry this concept of grandfathering only holds if the original facility is not significantly modified. If large changes are made then it is likely that the entire system will have to be upgraded to meet the latest standards. Adding a third track to two existing tracks constitutes a huge change. Hence I assume that the entire system will need to be upgraded to 2016 standards and to meet the requirements of the BOD for spacing between the tracks and pedestrians and buildings.

Minimum Separation Distances

Chapter 3 of the BOD —  “Highway” — appears to be the most pertinent to this discussion, particularly Section 3.3.6, which is entitled “Pedestrians/Bike Paths/Trails”.  Page 3-4 provides an inactive link to a document entitled Vtrans Pedestrian and Bicycle Facility Planning and Design Manual that presumably provides more detail. (I was unable to open the link or to locate the document on the internet.) The recommended minimum separation distances are provided in Figure 3-1, which is reproduced below.


Engineering Judgment

No matter how detailed the rules and standards may be there are always gray areas that require interpretation and the application of professional judgement. For example, Page 3-5 of the BOD shows three types of rail operation.


A normal first response would be to put the town of Ashland into the first category:

“11 trains or more per day. Max Speed over 45 mph”.

But trains are not allowed to travel at 45 mph through town, so maybe the town does not fall into that category. It is not clear if the standard means,

. . . per day or Max Speed . . .


. . . per day and Max Speed . . .

Judgment is called for (or else the project engineering manager reviewed this document with an insufficiently sharp pencil).

Minor Upgrade

There is currently a discussion going on to do with a “Minor Upgrade” to the tracks through Ashland. (This option was removed from a recent Board of Supervisors motion.) No definition has been provided for the word “minor”, thus making the whole discussion rather vague. However, it may not be that all that important. Based on the the information in this post it is likely that any upgrade that can materially affect the capacity of the railroad will be large enough to obviate the existing exemption from code. Hence it is probable that,

All minor upgrades are actually major upgrades

Hence even a “minor” upgrade will lead to destruction of historic homes and businesses and will be enormously costly.


All engineering projects have to meet a plethora of codes and standards. In order to fully understand the impact of this proposed project on the town of Ashland we need to identify which of those codes apply. Based on the preliminary analysis provided here the following early conclusions are reached.

  1. The existing tracks were installed when there was little or nothing in the way of construction codes and standards.
  2. Adding a third track through the center of town means that the existing tracks would have to be upgraded to meet current code.
  3. The spacing required for this upgrade would be substantial and the impact on the town would be greater than previously anticipated.

This post started with a request. If anyone can provide insights regarding the engineering or construction of railroad tracks please let me know. In particular, I invite professional comments to do with the engineering discussions and assumptions that this post has initiated.

Next week we will probably glance at the topic of Cognitive Dissonance.


American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA). 2016 Manual for Railway Engineering. 2016.

Shalf, Roseanne Groat. Ashland, Ashland. Brunswick Publishing Corporation. 1994.

Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Basis of Design. Technical Criteria for Concept & Preliminary Engineering. Final Report. February 24, 2015.