One Year On

Train Ashland VA

I started this blog on Christmas Eve of last year  ― this the 99th post; so now is a good time to review the progress we have made, such as it is, and to review the status of the ‘High Speed Rail’ project.

The primary objective of this blog has always been to demonstrate that the idea of putting a third track through the town of Ashland is unsafe, destructive and in violation of code. I have focused on the engineering, project management and risk analysis aspects of the scheme. I leave the more emotional concerns to others.


Stanley-Bucky-1In an election season whose defining feature has been lack of civility I would like to start by commending everyone in our community who has participated in the response to the “High Speed Rail” project.

Shown are two of our community leaders ― Bucky Stanley of the Board of Supervisors and Jim Foley of the Ashland Town Council. But it is not just elected officials ― all citizens have demonstrated Jim Foley Mayor Ashland VAproper decorum  throughout the seemingly endless discussions and meetings. It is more than possible that, once hard recommendations are made, that this civility might break down. We will see.

Elevator Speech

Elevator speech for high speed rail through Ashland VAThe term ‘elevator speech’ has entered the business vernacular. It means that a project manager should be able to deliver a summary as to the project’s goals in the time span of a typical elevator ride ― two minutes at the most. (Henry Ford expressed the same idea when he expected his managers to be able to write down their goals on the back of a postage stamp.) Yet, on this project, there have been many mixed signals as to its justification. Is it the purpose of the project to:

  • Increase passenger capacity along the corridor?
  • Improve the punctuality of passenger trains?
  • To provide commuter service between Richmond and D.C.?
  • To increase freight capacity?

This lack of clarity as to the project’s goals is evident in the manner that people responded to the phrase “High Speed Rail”. At first, when they heard the term they had visions of bullet trains whizzing through or around Ashland at 200 mph or more. But, when they learned that the Richmond to D.C. speed was going from the current 55 mph to a mere 62 mph  and that Amtrak would be using the existing locomotives and passenger cars, a cynical response, which is still very much with us, was generated.

Far from having a clear focus the project seems to exhibit confusion of purpose. We lack an elevator speech.

Lack of Justification

It may be that the difficulty that the project leaders have in conveying their message is that the justifications that they have provided so far are are not water-tight. The project has the hallmarks of a solution looking for a problem.

Increased Passenger Capacity

amtrak-carriage-1One of the stated reasons for the project is that there is a need for more  passenger capacity. Yet a glance at the trains going by show that they are rarely full. The trains north of Fredericksburg  do have more passengers. But there seems to be little justification for increased passenger capacity through Ashland.


Increased Freight Capacity

Marx-Groucho-1Another reason put forward for the project is that it will allow CSX and the freight carriers to increase capacity. Other projects such as the expansion of the port of Norfolk, the Virginia Avenue Tunnel and the Rocky Mountain Hub all point to an increase in freight traffic.

But, as with the passenger capacity, a glance out of the window makes one wonder. Those of us who live on or near the tracks observe large intervals between the trains. As that great philosopher Groucho Marx said, “Who are you going to trust, me or your lying eyes?”

Indeed there are some indications that freight traffic may actually be decreasing. One reason is that the coal business has declined so steeply. But the decline seems to be more broad based. If there really is going to be an increase in freight traffic sufficient to justify the upheaval and expense associated with this project then the project team needs to provide much more data.

Related to the lack of clarity regarding freight traffic is the fact that the owner of the tracks, CSX, has been remarkably quiet as to the nature of their goals.


Lynchburg derailment and fire 2014

I have worked on projects in the process industries for much of my career (the picture shows the impact of the recent incident in Lynchburg, VA; they were lucky, the cars rolled into the James River, not the town’s shopping center). Before any equipment can be put into service the managers must answer two questions:

  1. Is it safe?
  2. Will it work?

Note that the controlling question is to do with safety. Yet, in all of the documentation that I have reviewed, including the voluminous 1423 page draft Tier II Environmental Impact Statement, I have been unable to find a formal safety analysis. This is a deficiency.

Railroad safety can be divided into three categories.

  1. The safety of the passengers and crew who ride on the trains.
  2. Collisions between trains and cars and pedestrians crossing the tracks.
  3. Spills of Highly Hazardous Chemicals.

There is no reason to believe that this project will materially affect the safety of those who ride on the trains, so this discussion is limited to crossing and chemical tank car safety.

Crossing Safety

Amtrak incident Myrtle Street Ashland VA 2012
Myrtle St.

One of the major hazards to do with railroads is the enormous number of public crossings (vehicle and pedestrian) across the tracks. CSX and the other rail companies spend a considerable amount of time and money attempting to educate the public but, the reality is that collisions are going to happen (the picture is one I took of a car that was struck by an Amtrak train on Myrtle Street).


In the process industries from which I hale we have a saying, “If a man’s not there he can’t be killed”. What this means is that risk is always present in any industrial activity. We can reduce the consequences and we can reduce the likelihood but we cannot eliminate the risk unless we remove the hazard altogether.

What does this insight mean to our project? It’s simple: if cars and people are not allowed to cross the tracks directly then collisions between trains and vehicles/people cannot happen. Yet the tracks through Ashland have many crossings ― England St. and Ashcake Rd. come to mind ― so the risk of a collision exists. And, as the evidence shows, that risk is high.

The first time I saw the proposed maps for the Ashland alternatives my immediate reaction is that a new bypass is unequivocally the safest option because all crossings are bridges and so a collision between a train and a vehicle cannot happen. We can rewrite the slogan I quoted above to read, “If a car’s not there it can’t be hit”.

Highly Hazardous Chemicals

Process-Risk-Reliability-Management-2ndI have worked in the process industries all of my career and have spent the last twenty years of so in the area of Process Safety Management  (the picture is of one of the many books I have written on the topic). So I have much experience with what the transport regulators call ‘Highly Hazardous Chemicals’ (HHCs). As I started to look at the chemical tank cars going through town I was not a little surprised. Virtually all of the most dangerous chemicals used in American industry transit Ashland all the time (the only one that I have not seen is phosgene).

Evidently, some years ago there was a suggestion that low-level nuclear waste could be hauled by train through town. There was an outcry and the proposal was quashed. Yet the irony is that some of the chemicals that we see every day pose a much greater threat to the community than nuclear waste.

The risk associated with these chemicals requires that a formal risk analysis be conducted (something that the DRPT appears not to have done). As time permits I will draft such an analysis, recognizing that I am working with a lack of data. Such an analysis will include a review of actual incidents and analyses of different types of spill. But, even at this stage, the conclusions are clear.

  • The current situation whereby we allow the transit of HHCs so close to our community (and the traffic that flows through it) is unsafe. But we live with it because “that’s the way it’s always been”.
  • Adding more chemical tank cars will push us over a safety threshold.
  • Adding a third track through town would push us even further over that threshold.
  • A new bypass would be inherently safer because:
    • It would be built to the latest codes and standard;
    • The population density is much lower; and
    • Access for emergency vehicles would be easier due to the presence of the aforementioned bridges (in Ashland the train would likely block the highway crossings).

Codes and Standards

Much of my research and analysis this year has been to do with codes and standards, particularly as they affect track spacing ― both between the tracks and between the outer track and public highway. I have been concerned at the lack of clear design standards in the design basis documents that have been made available to us, so I extended my research to the point where I was borrowing books on railroad engineering from the Library of Congress. It’s been a frustrating task. However, the results appear to be coming into focus.


There are two cases: ‘Case A’ where the existing tracks stay where they are and a new track is installed on the east side of Center St. and ‘Case B’ in which all the tracks ― new and old ― are upgraded to modern standards. The picture below is of Case A. Yet, from what we have heard from the DRPT, it would appear as if it is Case B that will apply. So the picture is too conservative ― in fact the swatch of destruction would extend to both sides of Center St., taking out the road and much of the sidewalk.

Lack of Imagination

Hyperloop train Richmond to Washington
Hyperloop Train Approaching Washington D.C.

Throughout this project I have been concerned at what appears to be a lack of imagination. The current generation of high speed trains (on the lines of today’s Acela) were developed in the 1950s in Japan. This is old technology. If the start-up date for this project is say 2025 then the basic design will be 70 years old. Yet we have come a long way since the 1950s. For example, by the time that this project materializes many of the trucks on I-95 will be driverless. Has the impact of this change been considered? Could the same driverless technology applied to trains allow for a greater density of operation? Will the use of driverless trucks remove freight from the railroads?

The new high speed trains ― often referred to as hyperloop ― are still being developed but the basic technology behind them is well established and is in commercial service. From our point of view a hyperloop train would travel at around 650 mph ― not much slower than an airplane. It would also be of light construction ― so it could be feasible to put the tubes on pillars built on the I-95 median.

This is not science fiction.



I would like to conclude by thanking all the people who have helped me with the work we have done to demonstrate the predicaments that this project creates. I wish all of my readers a safe and happy holiday season.

Ian Sutton


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