The Train Journey that Never Happened

High speed train Ashland VA to Philadelphia

This week I was invited to a lunch-time business meeting in Philadelphia. The meeting was a “nice to do” not “must do”. I decided to accept the invitation. I would hop on a train in Ashland, travel to 30th St. station in Philadelphia, take a taxi to the meeting location (about 6 miles from the station), meet my colleagues and return home.

But investigation of the timetable showed that I would have to leave Ashland at 6:13 a.m. and get home at 8:45 p.m. — and that assumes that everything runs on time: 15 hours of travel for a short, non-essential meeting. So I decided not to bother.

Imagine that we really did have high speed train service from Richmond to D.C. — not the “just a little bit higher” speed that we are being offered. Then I would take the VRE local from Ashland to Staples Mill and transfer to the true high speed train to the north east. My journey times would be reduced by a factor of two at least and I would have made the journey.



Safety Measures

The recent spate of accidents involving crossings (see Two Accidents and video) has prompted the Town of Ashland to publish ‘Town of Ashland Announces Initiatives to Improve Safety at Rail Crossings’. It can be downloaded here.

The report examines incidents since the year 2007. It is interesting to note that (a) 78% of the incidents occurred at night, and (b) 67% involved the consumption of alcohol.

Richmond Fails to Make the Cut

Hyperloop Richmond Washington

Regular readers of this blog are aware that the use of hyperloop trains along the eastern corridor would (a) give us true high speed trains, and (b) resolve many of the land use conflicts that the existing DRPT plans create. (For a summary of how hyperloop works see our recent post Back to the Future.)

Well, it turns out that the hyperloop project is progressing well but our region did not make the cut for the first applications. The areas in the United States that have been listed for this technology, as reported in Hyperloop One has a short list of cities for its 760-mile-per-hour trains are:

  • Boston-Somerset
  • Cheyenne-Houston
  • Gary-Louisville
  • LA-Ensenada, MX
  • Kansas City- St. Louis
  • Miami-Orlando
  • Midwest
  • Nevada
  • Colorado (two proposals)
  • Seattle-Portland
  • Texas Triangle

The Boston and Miami sections do at least provide the beginnings of hyperloop for the east coast line.

Back to the Future

Hyperloop train RVA to DC
Hyperloop train from RVA approaching DC

When I started looking into this “High Speed Rail” project just over a year ago it seemed to me that the project could be summarized in three words, ‘Lack of Imagination’, with a sub-title, ‘Confusion of Purpose’. In the succeeding twelve months I have seen little to make me change my mind.

As we all know, there has been considerable opposition within the Ashland community to this project. The ostensible reason for this opposition is that people do not wish to see their communities disrupted and even destroyed. But the fierceness of the resistance may have something to do with the fact that the justifications for the project seem to be so ephemeral and vague.

To summarize:

  • High Speed Rail implies a straight-away trains speed of 300 km/h — say 180 mph. The journey time from Richmond to D.C. would be reduced from 3 hours to about 45 minutes. Given the time it gets to and from airports, the train would be quicker than flying and much quicker than driving. In response to this opportunity to provide true high speed rail service, we are being offered speeds of just over 60 mph and journey times about 15 minutes less than they are now. Moreover, the Acela system that is seen as being state of the art is, in fact, little faster than the bullet trains that were first used in Japan in the 1950s.

This is not a high speed rail project — even though there is a clear and present need for high speed rail.

What is the purpose of this project?

  • The “win-win” solution in which train speeds and capacity could be increased with minimal impact on the community of Ashland is to run a new track along the I-95 corridor. But but this option has been excluded due to the expense (particularly the cost of new bridges) and the tightness of the curves.

The I-95 corridor option has been abandoned on the grounds of cost and practicality — assuming the use of existing (i.e., 70 year old) technology. Evidently, no consideration has been given to the use of new technologies.

The Project Frame

Project managers are taught to define the project frame, i.e., to provide  a clear explanation of the opportunity or problem being solved, then to define the scope of the project  and to provide a plan for achieving the goals. They need to be clear as to, “What’s In and What’s Out”. With regard to this project we have never been provided with the frame — instead we have jumped straight into engineering. This is a fault.

With regard to the current “High Speed Rail” project, I suggest that the following items are inside the frame:

  1. True high speed trains running between Boston and Miami.
  2. Increased freight capacity along the D.C. to Norfolk corridor.
  3. Commuter service between Richmond and Washington with trains traveling at about the same speed as now.

All of which brings us to the State of Colorado.

Colorado High Speed Train

Hyperloop Freight

Yesterday CBS News published a report Colorado One Step Closer To Supersonic Transit With Hyperloop. The following are quotations from that report.

Colorado is one step closer to a supersonic transport system with the Hyperloop One, which would zip passengers and cargo along the Front Range at more than 700 mph.

That speed would translate into a five-minute trip from Denver to Boulder.

Researchers describe Hyperloop One as a sort of “bullet train” that can travel the distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco, normally a five-and-a-half-hour drive, in just 30 minutes.

You can put people in them. You can put freight in them. There’s a lot of applications. So it’s kind of like the railroad- only a couple hundred years later, and it’s a new technology.

For a summary of how such technology may apply to our corridor see the presentation to the Hanover Board of Supervisors in July 2016.

 I-95 Option

Hyperloop Train I-95 corridor

The best way of building the new rail capacity without seriously disrupting our community is to use the existing I-95 corridor. We have been told that that option is not practical and too expensive. A more precise and thoughtful response would have been, “The I-95 option is not practical and too expensive given the use of current technology”. (The California high speed rail project illustrates some of the limitations of existing technology.)

Were hyperloop technology to be used pillars would be erected on the median between the existing traffic lanes. The hyperloop trains/bullets would travel through tubes installed on top of the pillars. Disruption to the surrounding community would be minimal.

Features of such a system are:

  • The “trains” are light (no track, no locomotive) so it would be practical to build the pillars and tubes within the existing corridor.
  • The gradient limitations for existing trains (1% for freight, 3.5% for passenger) would not apply.
  • Similarly, the current curve limitations would not apply (although the “trains” would have to slow down at bends in order to minimize ‘g’ forces on the passengers).
  • The existing CSX tracks would be used for freight (although the freight companies are known to be interested in hyperloop) and for commuter trains.

Hyperloop trains rely on two technologies: magnetic levitation and low pressure tubes. Both technologies are proven and in commercial service. As stated to the Board of Supervisors, “This is not science fiction”.

Get Real

Whenever I raise the possibility of true High Speed Rail the response is often on the lines of,

  • Sounds interesting — but it will never happen.
  • There’s no money for that.
  • The technology is not proven.
  • It will take too long.

I wonder, did the men and women who had the vision to lay a railroad between Richmond and D.C. in the 1830s face the same response?

1836 (from the Richmond Magazine)

An immense crowd lined the track for nearly a mile to gaze upon this representative of things to come.