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.

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