On November 8th the Commonwealth of Virginia Attorney General’s office released a draft of the Tier II Environmental Impact Statement (EIA). A copy of the document is available at the Town of Ashland web site here. (Due to the size of the document it takes a few minutes to download the document. Be patient.)
The document is lengthy (1426 pages) and is difficult to navigate because the Adobe ‘Find’ function does not work, at least not on the document that we downloaded. I will analyze the document as time permits and publish a set of Analyses.
Disclaimer: Because there is so much material in this document it is possible that some of the early conclusions will have to be adjusted as the analysis proceeds.
My first reaction to the draft EIS is a huge “missing section”. There is no solid discussion about the most important topic of all: Safety.
There are various categories of safety. For the purposes of this analysis we will look at two of them:
- A spill of a Highly Hazardous Chemical from a damaged tank car.
- A grade crossing event involving either a vehicle or a pedestrian.
Chemical Tank Car Safety
We have discussed chemical tank car safety in many previous posts. Probably the most relevant is the Lynchburg derailment. After all, this occurred in our state just over two years ago.
What Can Happen
The general scenario is as follows.
- A tank car is badly damaged, say by hitting another car or by coming off the tracks. (The picture at the top of this post is an example of the second failure mode.It is of a car carrying toxic chemicals through Tennessee in July 2015. The chemical in question — acrylonitrile — is toxic, flammable and water soluble. This event led to serious contamination of both the soil and groundwater.)
- The chemical spill leads to the formation of a cloud of toxic gas that drifts into the local community, or the spilled contents explode and catch fire. One of the tenets of my work is not be alarmist. But, should such an event take place within the town of Ashland, the loss of life and injuries to people could be very high indeed.)
Now the likelihood of such an event is low, but it is not zero. Indeed, an Internet search shows that there have been quite a few of this type of event in recent years. Moreover we know how to analyze events of this type using EPA-approved software. Chemical risk management is a mature topic.
Up until this point we have simply accepted the risks to do with highly hazardous chemicals being hauled through the town of Ashland. “That’s the way it’s always been”. But now that we are looking at new track configurations it would be irresponsible not to select the safest option. And that option is to run chemical tanks cars on a bypass around town. This would improve safety for the following reasons.
- The population density would be much lower. Hence the impact would be correspondingly less.
- A new track would be built to the latest standards of safety, particularly with regard to track spacing. Hence the likelihood of such an event taking place would be as low as can be achieved.
- Emergency vehicle access would be good since all crossings would be bridges, hence the roads would not be blocked by the stopped train.
Traffic Crossing Safety
The second type of safety with which railroads concern themselves is collisions between vehicles or people at grade crossings. (The picture shows the consequence of a train traveling at 9½ mph hitting a car crossing the tracks at Myrtle St.)
Events such as these occur quite frequently. The town of Ashland is a particular concern due to the large number of vehicles that transit England St. and Ashcake Rd. On the other hand the proposed bypass will have only bridge crossings and (presumably) fences to prevent people and livestock from crossing the tracks.
One of the options presented at the recent community meeting at the Ashland theater was to run just passenger trains through Ashland and to direct freight trains (and presumably express passenger trains) on a bypass. Not only would such a bypass option be inherently safer due to the absence of grade crossings, safety will also be enhanced because there would be fewer trains traveling through Ashland. A rough estimate is that around 80% of the trains are freight. If most of these could be diverted we would see a corresponding improvement in safety. Moreover, passenger trains are shorter and can brake more quickly: another safety enhancement.
Running just passenger trains through town and diverting most of the freight trains to a bypass is unequivocally the safest option.