Peeling the Onion

Stewart-Martha-1

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:

Safety
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.

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

Economic
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”

commuter-1

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.

Vision

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.

Conclusion

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.

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