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.


3 thoughts on “3-2-3: A Code Violation

  1. Ian, I applaud your consistent and undeniably objective research on the safety issues of the DC2RVA project. Your posts are a much needed voice of reason among all the emotional/sentimental arguments out there that mean nothing to your hypothetical business woman (i.e. the general public.)

    However, I fear that some of your word choices (or lack thereof) in posts such as this one (intentionally or not) leave room for your audience to make some antagonistic conclusions towards the residents along the western bypass. At the 7/5 Ashland Town Council your words were much more positive and inclusive of everyone, “…the third-rail option is flat out illegal, and I’m looking at the other options in the same vein.” So, when will we see the equivalent research on the other options? Why does this research receive less priority than research opposing the third-rail? Would the western bypass require bringing the rails through town up to code? If so, we would lose center street and the green-belt compared to the third-rail option which only destroys center street and not the green-belt.

    I think the entire conversation would benefit from your input on ALL options. Coordinated opposition means using language that represents all affected parties. Failure to do so results in people feeling marginalized and under threat. This leads us down a slippery slope of fighting each other just to save our own skin. None of us want to see any of the DRPT’s current options become reality, that is a given. Therefore if we want to work together on saving this area, we must become active advocates for each other and direct the energy towards DRPT. As Councilwoman Abbot said, we must petition the state for a review of DRPT’s process and to consider alternatives that are actually reasonable to the town and county.

    Again, I applaud your research thus-far and appreciate the time you’ve invested into publishing it on this website. My request is that you post a preview of your research on the safety code violations of ALL options including the western bypass ‘in the same vein’ as the other options you have more clearly opposed.

    Thank you.


    1. Weston:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      First, let me note that the remarks I make concerning code and legal issues are based on years of experience to do with large projects. However, I am neither a lawyer nor a railroad engineer. Therefore, two days ago I decided to pause mys discussion while I seek advice in both of these areas. Only after I have received that advice will I move forward. I expect that this will be a slow process.

      So, to your question, for example, to do with bringing the existing rails up to code even if we have a western bypass — I simply don’t know. And it will probably be some time before we find out.

      Regarding the hypothetical business woman who hopes to whisk from Richmond to D.C. in an hour, I have been a little disappointed that so few people seem to “get” that line of argument. If you look at what is going on in California right now it seems as if that broader community is speaking up at last — but it also seems as if they are too late.

      For the last seven months I have tried to add the voice of objective analysis to this whole discussion. It seems that now many others are also thinking that way, which is great. It means that we can all work through these issues as a team. Had the California people responded in the manner I was suggesting a few years ago they might not be in the position they are now.

      Ian Sutton


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