Board of Supervisors: Transcript of Remarks

Train Ashland VA

As noted in the post Board of Supervisors Meeting I plan on saying a few words at the Citizen’s Input section on July 27th. A White Paper that provides detail was sent to the supervisors about two weeks ago. A transcript of my spoken remarks is available here and is reproduced below.

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Transcript of Remarks to Hanover Board of Supervisors
July 27th 2016

My name is Ian Sutton, 712 S. Center St., Ashland. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you this afternoon.

I write a blog at ashlandrail.com about the High Speed Rail project. My first post was published on Christmas Eve of last year. Since then I have written 68 posts.

My goal was, and remains, to demonstrate that the concept of running a third rail through the town of Ashland is unacceptable. I believe that I have achieved that goal — in the White Paper that I sent to the Board two weeks ago I point out that this option is demonstrably unsafe and that it appears to be in violation of code. There are other objections, of course, not the least of which is the immense damage that would be done to the town’s cultural heritage.

I have recently been asked to look into the broader issues that affect all of western Hanover — not just the town of Ashland.

As I think more about situation I suggest that we step back and look at the project in perspective. Doing so may help us come up with a solution that benefits not just the people of Hanover but also DRPT and CSX.

First, we need to understand that there are, in fact, three projects, each with its own goals, schedules and budgets. Which is why citizens of Hanover tend to become confused as to what is going on.

The first project — True High Speed Rail with bullet trains all the way from Boston to Miami — is still in the conceptual stage. When it will happen and what it will look like is anyone’s guess. But it is not going away.

The second project, the current third rail proposal, is in my judgement, somewhat of an embarrassment. The average speed of a train from RVA to DC would increase from 45.1 mph to 52.5 mph and punctuality would improve. But do such minor upgrades justify all the upheaval that is going on?

The third project is increased freight capacity, as illustrated by the Virginia Avenue tunnel expansion in D.C. and the Rocky Mountain hub in North Carolina. I am currently communicating with CSX management to try and improve my understanding of their goals and strategy.

I started by saying that I am trying to find a solution to these issues that will satisfy all the residents of the Ashland area, and also DRPT and CSX. The only way I can see of doing this is to drop the second project — the third rail option, and to jump straight to the first project: true High Speed Rail.

What I observe is that, from the beginning, we have allowed DRPT to control the narrative — they provide some options and we challenge them. But I suggest that we work with them, recognizing that they have legitimate goals, to come up with more imaginative solutions.

In the White Paper I make one such suggestion (I am sure that there are many others). I note that “High Speed Rail” is not modern, it has been around since the 1950s. Since then railway technology has made great strides. The concept of “hyperloop trains”, for example, reduce RVA to DC passenger journey times from 2 hours 20 minutes to 20 minutes. The system is light (no locomotive, no track, no wheels) so it could be built along the I-95 corridor for less money and with much less disruption than old-fashioned, so-called High Speed Rail. And it would not be subject to gradient limitations that are such a critical feature of all existing proposals.

This technology is surprisingly mature — it is not science fiction.

Now, I recognize that discussions to do with new railway technology are way outside the scope of the normal activities of the Hanover Board of Supervisors. Therefore, in my White Paper I suggest that we form a task force of professionals that would advise the Board and the community in general on topics such as these.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you.

 

 

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CSX: Rocky Mountain Hub

 

Proposed Rocky Mountain Hub
Rocky Mountain Hub

Here’s another link to do with expanded CSX freight traffic. Along with other projects such as the Virginia Avenue tunnel it is clear that CSX plans for increased traffic along the eastern corridor from both the both north and south.

The link does note that some landowners were successful in not having the cargo hub not built on their property. However, as shown in this video, there are limits to the power and influence of local government. Final decisions are made by CSX and at the state level.

And another link to do with the Rocky Mountain Hub contains the following quotation,

Railroad behemoth CSX has said said it would make Rocky Mount an East Coast hub for shipping and receiving cargo containers. The company will build the Carolina Connector, an “intermodal terminal”. The terminal will draw and reroute containers from East Coast trains and trucks and from North Carolina’s ports in Morehead City and Wilmington.

It is difficult for an ordinary citizen to figure out what is going on. But the pieces are falling into place — there is going to be more freight traffic to the north of us and more to the south of us. And it all comes through Ashland. As I note in my recent White Paper, it will do the citizens of Ashland little good just to protest what is going on locally. Strategic thinking is required.

Board of Supervisors Meeting

Hyperloop train RVA to DC
Hyperloop train from RVA approaching DC

Citizens’ Time

I plan of speaking at the Board of Supervisors Citizens’ Time on July 27th. Since my input is quite detailed I have prepared a White Paper to provide background. Its title is High Speed Rail Options, Hanover County, Virginia; it can be downloaded here. It has already been sent to the members of the Board.

The White Paper makes the following recommendations.

  1. DRPT and CSX provide the public with a plan for coordinating their projects.
  2. DRPT provides a thorough analysis as to why the I-95 option was rejected.
  3. DRPT demonstrates that they have studied the on-going challenges of the California project and that they have a plan to ensure that their own project will not suffer similar difficulties.
  4. DRPT demonstrates that they have thoroughly evaluated new technologies such as hyperloop trains.

I also suggest that the Board of Supervisors set up a task force of specialists to provide objective advice and analysis.

Third Rail, 3-2-3 and Hanover

I started blogging about the High Speed Rail project last year (my first post was on Christmas Eve 2015). Since then I have published 66 posts. My principal goal has been to demonstrate the folly of putting a third rail through the Town of Ashland.

Third Rail

Trying to squeeze a third rail through the already congested Ashland corridor is unacceptable for the following reasons:

  • The plan as proposed by DRPT is in violation of code. Not only does the new track have to meet modern code, so do the existing tracks. There is insufficient space to insert a third track while meeting those requirements.
  • We already have 50 freight trains moving through town every day. Approximately 6% of the cars are carrying “Highly Hazardous Chemicals’, i.e., chemicals which, were they to be released, could explode, burn or form a toxic vapor plume. Adding a third rail and increasing freight traffic would cross a safety threshold.
  • The loss of irreplaceable historical buildings and the impact of the college campus would be immense.
  • The project would be highly disruptive to the town’s economy.

3-2-3

About five months ago the DRPT added a new option: 3-2-3. It would have three tracks to the north and south of Ashland but would retain two tracks through town. For reasons similar to those just discussed this option would also appear to be in violation of code. It is also unsafe and destructive.

Hanover County

At this point there is not much more that I can do challenge the Third Rail and 3-2-3 options. I am seeking legal help regarding the interpretation of code and regulations and I am also chatting to seasoned railroad people, including CSX management, regarding changes in railroad freight traffic.

Many organizations in Hanover County, including the Supervisors, the Town Council and the Main St. organization have expressed a desire to come up with options that address the concerns of the broader Ashland community. I have been asked to help develop those options. My response is the White Paper referenced above.

Two Projects

One of the difficulties that we have had in following the High Speed Rail project is that there are actually two projects: High Speed Rail and Increased Freight Capacity. Each has its own goals, budgets and schedules but, because they are happening at the same time and same place, they have become entangled with one another, leading to confusion. (We are all on a learning curve as to what is going on. Communications from both DRPT and CSX could have been better.)

It is vital to stress that these two projects are going to happen. Merely wishing that they will not take place is not an effective response. This means that it behooves the citizens of Hanover to understand what the goals of both DRPT and CSX are, and to help those organizations achieve their goals, while protecting our community.

Define the Customer

commuter-1

In earlier posts such as Controlling the Narrative and Selling Nothing we suggested that those who oppose the DRPT proposals would achieve greater success were they to express their opposition in terms of the project’s customer — the passenger traveling along the east coast corridor. We even created a fictional business lady who travels from Richmond to D.C. We expressed some of her thoughts and disappointments as she learns more about the realities of the DRPT project. It makes similar sense to understand the goals of CSX and DRPT.

The Passenger Project

To further complicate an already foggy situation there are actually two phases to the HSR project. Phase I — which is what we are seeing now — is basically an increase in capacity. Phase II is true High Speed Rail.

Phase I — Increased Capacity

The DRPT refers to its project as the ‘Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor’. And the term ‘High Speed Rail’ is widely used to describe what they are doing. But, as pointed out in our post HSR, use of these words is  misleading. To summarize that post’s analysis, journey times from Staples Mill Rd. to Washington Union Station will be reduced from 2 hr 20 min to 2 hr and the train’s average speed will increase from 45.1 mph to a mere 52.5 mph. For most passengers, it will still be quicker to use I-95 — particularly if point-to-point times are considered.

The reality is that the current proposal to add a third track along the eastern corridor is not about ‘high speed’passenger service; what DRPT and Amtrak want is a more reliable service — one that will attract more travelers because those travelers are more confident that they will arrive at their destination on time. The third rail will help them achieve this goal because passenger trains will be less likely to be stuck behind a slow-moving freight.

Phase II — True High Speed

Acela train Ashland High Speed Rail
Acela Train

If the current project is something of a stopgap, then the question becomes, “What is the long-term goal?” We have virtually no authoritative information on this topic but we do hear that some long-term planning is going on. Clearly Amtrak would like to have a true high speed service from Boston to Miami.

They probably have a vision of something like the current Acela service running all that way. If that is their vision then we suggest that they are making a mistake. Current high speed rail technology such as Acela is old, very old. New methods of moving people far more quickly have been developed and are surprisingly mature. Moreover, if we could jump straight to these new technologies we could not only whisk our fictional business lady from RVA to D.C. in 20 minutes — we could do this with less disruption to the people of Hanover County.

In the White Paper we make the following points:

  1. One of the new technologies — hyperloop trains — is being developed. Trains run at up to 650 mph. Hence the journey time from RVA to DC goes from 2 hr 20 min to just 20 minutes.
  2. The new trains are much lighter than old-fashioned high speed trains (no locomotive, no track, no wheels). And there is no overhead catenary. Hence the structural and civil engineering challenges associated with building a hyperloop train along the I-95 corridor are much reduced.
  3. There is already competition among the nations of Europe to become the leader in this technology. Currently Finland/Sweden and Hungary/Slovakia are out front. It would be great if the United States could become one of the challengers.

My favorite quotation in this context is from one of the Swedish managers,

Expanded to all of Sweden the hyperloop makes high speed railways look ridiculous.

Let’s adapt that quotation,

Expanded to all of the United States the hyperloop makes High Speed Rail look ridiculous.

Obviously these concepts are futuristic. But a key part of the technology — electromagnetic levitation — is already in commercial use in Japan. Those trains travel at at well over 300 mph.

Freight

Two mile train
Two mile train

The situation regarding freight is difficult to follow. CSX projects 2% per annum growth in its traffic over the next 30 years. (Freight traffic actually declined somewhat during the last 12 months.) Yet they are currently taking actions that would seem to lead to a much bigger increase along our east coast corridor. These actions include:

  • Expansion of the Virginia Avenue tunnel in D.C to two tracks. Once it is finished CSX will be able to run double-stacked container trains all the way from Chicago to the south-east. This could have a huge impact on the traffic through Hanover.
  • Trains of two miles in length are on the horizon.
  • Expansion of the east coast ports in Virginia and North Carolina which will put many more containers on the eastern corridor. This growth will be fueled in part by the recent expansion of the Panama canal.
  • Potential closure of the C&O line due to reduced coal traffic.

We have been informed that CSX does not see themselves as a leader in our current project — they are merely picking up on the benefits that the DRPT project would offer them. Others are more skeptical. This is clearly a topic that merits further communication.

Conclusions

This post summarizes some of the points made in the White Paper. Other issues — including the troubled California HSR project and the lack of information to do with the I-95 option — are not discussed here.

In summary:

  1. High Speed Rail — in some form — is coming.
  2. The current ‘High Speed Rail’ project is actually a ‘More Reliable Rail’ project.
  3. It is likely that we will see much more freight traffic along the eastern corridor in coming years — although details are frustratingly hazy.
  4. It makes sense for those opposed to the current project to understand the needs and goals of the passengers who will be traveling on the new trains, and of the freight companies using the tracks.
  5. Current ‘High Speed Rail’ technology is very old. Its time is over — the trains are too slow. The use of modern technology will dramatically reduce travel times and will lessen the impact on the communities through which it travels.

 

Virginia Avenue Tunnel

VA-Avenue-Tunnel

The 110 year old Virginia Avenue tunnel that runs through Washington D.C. is used by CSX. A project to upgrade it started last year. It should be complete within the next two to three years.

The project site states,

The Virginia Avenue Tunnel currently has a single track that accommodates one train at a time. The reconstruction will increase the tunnel width to install a second track and raise the height of the tunnel roof to make room for double-stack intermodal container trains.

For Ashlanders this project offers three insights.

  1. The increased freight traffic promised for our area is not just that coming from ports to the south of us. There will also be more traffic coming from the north and north-west.
  2. We can expect to see more double-stack trains.
  3. CSX was able to obtain approval for this project against strong opposition, even though it goes through some of the most expensive real estate in the country. And many of the people who live there are influential.

Virginia Avenue Tunnel

Fredericksburg Meeting

Fredericksburg VA Amtrak station
We have received the following information to do with a DRPT meeting in the Fredericksburg area.

Spotsylvania County will hold a meeting regarding the proposed Washington, D.C. to Richmond Southeast High Speed Rail project on Monday, July 11 at Fredericksburg Christian High School. The meeting is scheduled from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and will include a presentation at 7 p.m., followed by a question and answer session. Spotsylvania County is holding the meeting in coordination with the City of Fredericksburg, Caroline County, and Stafford County.

The complete notice is here.

I am thinking of going — if anyone is interested in car-pooling let me know.

Update: the street address is:

9400 Thornton Rolling Road
Fredericksburg, VA 22408

3-2-3: A Code Violation

Third track through Ashland
Third track through Ashland

Let me start with a short anecdote.

Early in my career I was appointed lead engineer on a project for a chemical plant in Texas. The project was to take a small unit operation consisting of a distillation column, two heat exchangers and a pump and to adapt it for a new service. Here are the parameters:

  • The equipment had been built and installed in the 1940s.
  • Since then it had operated safely and efficiently with no incidents.
  • The equipment did not comply with the latest pressure vessel and heat exchanger code.
  • The new service for this equipment was less stringent, i.e., pressures and temperatures were lower than before and the new chemicals being processed were no more hazardous than the old ones.
  • Nevertheless we had to cancel the project because a fundamental change in service meant that the “grandfather clauses” that had allowed us to keep operating were no longer usable and we could not justify the cost of a major upgrade to the equipment.

Now fast forward to Ashland’s railroad.

In the posts to do with the proposed “High Speed Rail” project we have repeatedly pointed out that the Third Rail option is a code violation. Let us summarize the logic.

  • The existing tracks were laid down in the years 1843 and 1903, long before the introduction of codes to do with track beds.
  • The existing tracks are in violation of modern code in two regards. First the spacing between the tracks is too narrow. Second, there is insufficient space between the edge of the tracks and the public highway (see DRPT Basis of Design).
  • Current operation of the tracks is permitted under the concept of a “grandfather clause”.
  • Adding a third rail means that all the tracks, not just the new one, have to be upgraded to modern code.
  • The fact that there has been only one major derailment in the Ashland area in recent years is immaterial. The codes’ requirements have to be followed.
  • Based on the maps published by DRPT the proposed expansion is in violation of code.
  • Hence the Third Rail option does not meet the requirements of Federal law.
  • Hence the Third Rail option cannot go forward.

Let us apply the same logic to the 3-2-3 option.

  • The project has two justifications. The first is to provide High Speed Passenger train capability. The second is to allow for a 95% increase in freight traffic and a 71% increase in the number of tank cars carrying Highly Hazardous Chemicals following the expansion of the east coast ports.
  • Both of these rationales constitute a fundamental change in the operation of the tracks. This is analogous to the engineering analogy which started this post.
  • Hence the grandfather clauses that apply to the existing tracks no longer hold.
  • Hence the 3-2-3 option does not meet the requirements of Federal law.
  • Hence the 3-2-3 option cannot go forward.

Two final thoughts.

  1. It is possible for the project team to ask for a variance from a safety code. But few regulators or engineers will ever do so for what should be self-evident reasons. That option was never on the table as we decided what to do with regard to our little engineering project.
  2. The project may be able to meet code by destroying and existing homes and businesses. But doing so is not part of the published option. If the project team changes the scope of work then there are many more new options to be considered.

To close out the anecdote that started this post; when I presented the results of the engineering analysis to the project manager I was not exactly the most popular person in the room because it resulted in cancellation of the project. But never at any time was there any question that we had made the right decision.

Safety first.

The Texas Panhandle Derailment – 2016

Train accident Panhandle Texas 2016

As discussed in previous posts we are writing a White Paper entitled The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive and Costly. Details are available here and herePart of that White Paper includes a review of train incidents that provide lessons learned for the Rail project. One of those incidents was the derailment and fire that occurred in the Texas Panhandle on June 28th 2014. Unlike the Lynchburg event this tragedy resulted in three fatalities and one injury.

The Incident

This Panhandle incident was caused by a head-on collision between two BNSF freight trains in northwest Texas. Because the event is so recent very little authorized information as to its causes are available. As agencies such as the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) publish their reports we will update this post.

Here is what we know so far.

  • The event occurred on June 28th 2016 in the morning. It was daylight; weather conditions were normal.
  • The location was about 25 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas.
  • It is reported, but not confirmed, that the speed limit in the area was 70 mph.
  • Neither train included chemical tank cars. Nevertheless the diesel fuel in the locomotives caught fire and burned for hours. From pictures of the event it appears as if the freight cars also burned. Freight cars were scattered quite a long way from the tracks.
  • Each locomotive had two crew members. Three of them died, the fourth jumped from the train before the impact and survived.
  • It is reported that the fire fighters did not have the foam systems needed to suppress a diesel fire, which is why the fire burned for so long.

Here is a short clip of the event.

Lessons for Ashland

We are looking at these events to see what lessons can be applied to the proposed third rail project.

  • As can be seen from the pictures, the event took place in a sparsely populated area. Had it occurred in Ashland there would have been major property damage and a significant chance of injury or even fatalities to members of the public.
  • Although chemical tank cars present the greatest risk, fire is a major hazard to do with any train.
  • Clearly the existing situation in which trains travel through a densely populated area on tracks that were built long before modern codes were promulgated poses a high level of risk. Adding a third rail to this already congested area and then increasing the number of freight trains by nearly 100% over the next 30 years increased risk to an unacceptable level.

Personal Response

One final thought about this incident is to do with personal safety. If you yourself are close to an event such as this what should you do?

In our post Immediate Response to a Vapor Release we described what to do if you are exposed to a leak of toxic gas from a ruptured tank car (move across, not down wind). This Panhandle event provides another lesson — if an emergency is about to happen run away. The only survivor of this event was the locomotive operator who jumped out before the impact.

In general if you are involved in an event such as this get away from the scene. You can do little to help and you are a distraction to the trained emergency responders.

The Lynchburg Derailment – 2014

Train derailment Lynchburg VA

As discussed in previous posts we are writing a White Paper entitled The Ashland Third Main-Line: Unsafe, Destructive and Costly. Details are available here and herePart of that White Paper includes a review of train accidents that provide lessons learned for the Rail project. One of those incidents was the derailment and fire that occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia on April 30th 2014.

The following is a summary of some of the relevant details.

  • A train carrying light crude oil derailed.
  • The cause of the event was a broken rail.
  • Three tank cars rolled into the James River.
  • At least one of the cars exploded and caught fire.
  • The train was traveling at 24 mph.
  • The event occurred in downtown Lynchburg during the lunch hour but no one was injured.They were lucky. Had the car rolled the other way they could have impacted businesses and restaurants in the area. The incident was also close to the parking lot of a children’s museum (which was evacuated safely).
  • The cars were not overloaded.
  • The cars were operated by CSX. It took two hours for a CSX representative to reach the scene and assist the fire fighters.
  • A substantial amount of oil leaked into the James River.

For those analyzing the Ashland Third Rail project the following lessons can be learned from this Lynchburg incident.

  • To the best of our knowledge crude oil does not go through Ashland. However we do have many cars containing light hydrocarbons such as isobutane and LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas). These are considerably more dangerous than crude oil because (a) they are much more likely to generate a large explosion, and (b) a fire would be very difficult to extinguish (indeed, the fire fighters may decide not to extinguish it because there could then be a second explosion).
  • CSX and other operators have a stringent rail inspection program. Nevertheless rail failures can occur at any time or place.
  • The train was being operated properly — in particular it was traveling below the speed limit.
  • Had this event occurred in Ashland, particularly were a third rail to be installed, it is certain that property damage would have been extensive and it is likely that there would have been injuries, possibly fatalities.

Train derailment Lynchburg VA

Car Widths

Passenger and freight car dimensions
There has been considerable publicity in recent days to do with the proposed new Ashland station. Most of the discussion has been to do with the appearance of the station and its impact on the college’s activities. But there may be some engineering issues to consider also. For example, one commenter noted that freight cars are wider than passenger cars. Therefore freight traffic will not be able to travel through the station.

I took a quick look at this issue. Regarding the width of cars the following dimensions apply.

  • Amtrak standard car 119.5”.
  • Freight car dimensions vary but it appears that most box cars are 128” wide.

Hence the difference between the in width between passenger and freight cars is 8.5”. Given that the extra width projects to both sides of the car it would appear that running a freight train through the new station would require that the gap between the platform’s edge and the passenger car door would have to be at least 4.25″ greater than required for just passenger service. This is a considerable distance and presumably would not meet wheelchair requirements.

Therefore my tentative conclusion is that the only way the new station would work would be for CSX to create at least two bypass lines for the freight trains. In other words the new station forces a third rail to be installed. This would do more damage to college life than would the new station.

I presume also that they could not apply a “minor upgrade” to the existing station for the reasons discussed to do with the tracks themselves — as soon as the project engineers touch the tracks and station all grandfather exemptions disappear.

If anyone has knowledge of railroad engineering standards please let me know if this conclusion is correct.

Thank you.