CSX Locomotive Fire: Ashland 9/16

CSX Train Fire Ashland VA

On September 27th 2016 somewhere between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. a CSX locomotive caught fire in Ashland. Here is what is known so far:

  • The train was being hauled by three locomotives. It was the third locomotive that had the fire.
  • The locomotive was located in the region of West Patrick St., adjacent to the Randolph-Macon tennis courts.
  • The train was heading south.
  • The fire was extinguished and the locomotive was removed.
  • The train consisted of coal wagons only.
  • There are no reports of injuries or damage to other property.
  • It is possible that the cause of the event was unburned fuel caking up on the turbocharger and catching fire.

We are continuing to research this event in order to find more details.

The background is that we are analyzing safety issues to do with the proposed High Speed Rail project. The current situation with regard to safety is, in our judgment, unacceptable. Here are some basic facts.

  • Approximately 62 freight trains a day travel through Ashland.
  • 6% of the cars carry Highly Hazardous Chemicals (HHCs) — chemicals that can explode, burn or release a vapor cloud of toxic gas. (“Empty” cars generally contain 3% of the original contents and can actually be more hazardous than full cars.) Some of the most severe chemicals used in American industry travel through our town.
  • We can analyze the effect of a leak (large or small) using EPA-authorized software.

A preliminary risk analysis indicates that we are above the threshold of “acceptable risk”. However, we live with the situation because “That’s the way it’s always been” (just as we live with the fact that the current track spacing does not meet code). However, adding more trains, many of them with many more cars, will create a safety situation that is not acceptable.

The following posts provide information on some of the safety analysis work that we have done so far.

If anyone can provide further information on these or other events that are pertinent to the safety of trains through Ashland, please let us know.

Thank you.


CTB Meeting


The DRPT (Department of Rail & Public Transportation) will issue their Tier I Environmental Impact Statement on or around mid-November of this year. Their recommendations will be reviewed by the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) which will will issue its response early next year.

On September 20th and 21st the CTB held hearings that included public comment. The “No Third-Rail” team from Ashland was well represented. Vice Mayor James Murray and Council Member Kathy Abbot led the presentations. They were supported by citizen input, including comments from myself to do with codes and safety. A transcript of my remarks is available here and a copy of the report that I submitted — The Impact of the Ashland Third Mainline — is here. These documents have not been peer reviewed.

Codes and Standards

We looked at two scenarios. Case A assumes that a third rail is added to the east side of Center St. but the existing tracks remain where they are. Case B assumes that the new track is laid down the east side of Center St. and that the existing tracks are brought up to modern codes and standards.

Shown below are sketches that were prepared to analyze the various options. These sketches are not to scale and they are based on the DRPT Basis of Design — a document that has limitations.

Figures 1 and 2 show the existing situation. The tracks were laid down in the years 1843 and 1903 respectively. They do not come close to meeting current code for distance between the tracks and, most importantly, distance from the outer edge of the track to the public highway.

Tracks through Ashland VA
Figure 1 – Existing Tracks
Tracks through Ashland VA
Figure 2 – Existing Tracks

Case A

This is the scenario in which a new track is added but the existing tracks remain where they are. Figure 3 shows that land 8 feet to the east of the existing sidewalk will be taken. This will lead to the destruction of many homes and stores and to the loss of frontage for all the buildings on the east side of the tracks.

Figure 3 – Case A

Case B

Figure 4 assumes that all tracks will have to meet current standards for spacing. It shows that the western side of Center St. is destroyed. Not only would homes be lost but all of the commercial buildings north of the Arts Center up to and including the station would have to be removed.

Shows the impact of Case B, upgrading all tracks
Figure 4 – Case B



In previous posts we have discussed safety issues to do with the transport of ‘Highly Hazardous Chemicals’ (HHCs) through town. The analyses are based on the following parameters:



  • Approximately 62 freight trains a day travel through town.
  • 6% of the cars that they haul contain HHCs. These are chemicals that, were they to spill, would explode, burn or release a cloud of toxic gas. The impact of such a release could lead to serious injuries, possibly the loss of life and much property damage.
  • A ‘Process Hazards Analysis’ (reference my book Process Risk and Reliability Management) demonstrates that the current situation is demonstrably unsafe. However we tolerate it because, just as with the spacing of the tracks, “that’s the way it’s always been”.
  • Adding more trains and more HHC cars would make the current unsafe situation even less tolerable.

These are not merely theoretical issues, as shown by the recent 2014 Lynchburg, VA incident.

Lynchburg derailment and fire 2014


National News

A French TGV

Our little town of Ashland is making it to the national level. On September 23rd 2016 the Washington Post published A railroad town that doesn’t want another train.

Here are some highlights from the article:

  • Railroading has built Ashland, 15 miles north of Richmond, dating to the 1840s. But now it threatens to destroy it.
  • One proposal would add a third track right through Ashland’s downtown where there’s hardly room. Grade crossings in the area may be closed. Shop customers and residents wouldn’t have the same freedom to walk across the tracks they do now. Some of Ashland’s finest homes face the tracks and would be endangered.
  • Ashland is hiring Williams Mullen, an influential Richmond law firm, to fight the third rail. Randolph-Macon College, whose leafy campus would be split by two 850-foot-long elevated passenger stands and a parking lot, has signed up McGuire Woods, another blue-chip Richmond law firm. It isn’t known yet if the western bypass players will follow suit.
  • Some feel squeezed by big inside players such as CSX, Amtrak and state and federal bureaucrats. They control the bureaucratic process in which the 17-member Commonwealth Transportation Board will make a final recommendation after state and federal officials complete their assessments, including routes and costs.
  • One option that would let many off the hook is using a short-line railroad trunk line to bypass Ashland to the east. But in 2002, bureaucrats took that off the table, saying it was too disruptive and expensive. Still, some Ashland residents see it as a solution to ease community tensions.


Facebook logo Ashland railA few months ago I registered with Facebook so that I could learn more about what people were saying about the “High Speed Rail” project. Since then I have received many ‘friend requests’. I have not responded to them because I am increasingly uneasy about Facebook’s security, its lack of privacy and what they are doing with the data we give them.

Therefore, if you are one of the people who has asked to be a ‘Facebook friend’, please understand why I have not responded. It’s nothing personal. However — if you would like to meet for a coffee in the real world then I would be delighted to do so.

Ian Sutton