Hyperloop: New York to Washington

Elon Musk Boring Company Hyperloop New York to Washington

The following quotation is taken from a recent article in the New York Times.

 . . . Mr. Musk said he had been given “verbal” government “approval” for his vision, in which one of his companies, the Boring Company, would build an underground transportation system connecting New York City to Philadelphia to Baltimore and on to the nation’s capital — enabling people to make the trip in the unheard-of time of 29 minutes.

It takes New Yorkers longer than that just to travel from one end of Manhattan to the other by subway.

When I read this article I had three immediate thoughts.

  1. Why not make Richmond one of the destinations?
  2. Musk understands the constraints that two dimensional travel imposes (ask anyone in Ashland or Hanover). So he says that our systems need to be three dimensional. My initial vision for hyperloop between Richmond and D.C. was to have elevated tubes over the I-95 median. Musk is going the other way: underground.
  3. Verbal approval isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
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A Hand in the Till

Herald Progress Ashland VA

The September 28th 2017 edition of the Herald-Progress published an “In My Opinion” by Ragan Phillips. It is re-published here with permission.


To quote Wendell Berry: “…political leaders do not know what we are talking about, and they are without the local affections and allegiances that would permit them to learn what we are talking about.”

The proposed new rail system between Washington and Richmond (DC2RVA) is an example of the consequences of Berry’s quote and, In My Opinion, it represents a tragedy for Hanover County and Ashland. At the end of the day, whenever and wherever this rail system is built, families, farms, friendships and communities will be destroyed.

Congress, along with federal and state governments and all public officials, has a strong ethical duty to American tax -payers. Included in these duties should be:

  • Duty of care
  • Duty of loyalty
  • Duty of impartiality
  • Duty of accountability
  • Duty to preserve the public’s trust in government
    (See Markula Center for Applied Ethics on “Public Officials as Fiduciaries”

This means that our tax dollars should be expended fairly and prudently. It does not mean that one element of industry or, particularly, one entity should be the beneficiary of Federal and Commonwealth expenditures.

The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) proposes to spend, at the very least, $5 billion for the 123 mile DC2RVA railroad line. The beneficiary of this huge tax-payer funded project is not the Commonwealth, nor the public. Who, then, is the primary beneficiary? The real “winner” is the railroad company, CSX.

Press releases from the DRPT state: “The purpose of this project is to provide a competitive transportation choice in the corridor by increasing intercity passenger rail capacity and improving travel times.” To wit, Amtrak passengers would benefit by reducing the time for the Washington-Richmond trip by twenty minutes. This is “fake news.”

Fact: Upwards of ninety percent (90%) of the railcars that will pass though the Commonwealth on this DC2RVA system will be CSX freight cars.

The DRPT goes on to say this “public transportation” project, will be paid for by “federal, state and local sources.” It happens that those “sources” are our tax dollars. The DPRT fails to advise the public that DC2RVA financially underwrites CSX freight operations.

Subsidizing CSX, an $11 billion revenue corporation with a $3 billion cash flow appears to be CSX’s “hand in the till” brought about by white-shoe lobbyists and elected public officials more interested in re-election than acting for the interest of the citizens whose votes put them in office.

In the meantime, while CSX hauls more freight at a faster pace and adds to their bottom line (and Amtrak passengers save that “critical” twenty minutes) the Commonwealth has numerous real problems experienced by real people whose essential needs have not been met.

Why not authorize these “CSX” railroad funds, certain to be well above the $5 billion preliminary estimate, for needed public investments in the Commonwealth, such as:

  • Affordable housing that would provide the economically disadvantaged with the opportunity for a productive life
  • Or, a real investment in public transportation enabling folks to move between home and work
  • Or, quality pre-school for all children that would offer a path toward future achievement
  • Or, targeted funding for public education, to include better pay for dedicated teachers, smaller class sizes, up-to-date technology, and safe, well-designed facilities

As one example, In the Hanover County Public School system [where the Board of Supervisors has (a) drained over $10 million (well over 10% of county funding for school operations) from the schools in the past six years and (b) removed $50 million in capital funds planned for four 75 year old elementary schools] we need an investment in public education for the 18,000 students. We do not need a multi-billion dollar subsidy for a CSX freight hauling scheme.

If CSX wants this high cost upgrade of their rails, let them make the investment with their corporate resources of equity and from willing providers of debt.
In this case, public officials’ fiduciary duty is quite simple:

Invest our tax dollars to ensure a better Commonwealth…not a better CSX freight line.

Greenfield / Brownfield

 

Map of CSX operations
CSX Operations

In all the discussions to do with the various options for increased rail capacity I don’t recall any that are written from the point of view of CSX operations.

 

The western bypass option is what is referred to as “greenfield”. It would be built as a stand-alone project that would not affect current operations. Once the bypass is built they quickly cut over to the existing tracks. This means that the managers who are running the trains while construction is taking place can continue their work as normal. Current operations would not be affected at all. The transition to the new system would be quick and seamless.

The trench option is “brownfield” — they would be building new track while attempting to maintain current train service — both freight and passenger. Doing so will be extraordinarily difficult. The concerns include the following:

  • There will be constant interruptions to existing operations as construction equipment is moved around and temporary tracks are built, relocated and removed.
  • Inevitably the operations managers will have to run a single-track system at times — they may even drop down to zero tracks occasionally.
  • It will be a huge challenge to ensure the safety of the workers. They will be working just a few feet from mainline trains that are constantly rumbling by. Given a philosophy of “safety first” this means that train operations will often have to be discontinued, often on very short notice.

The reality is that the trench operation will severely impact the reliability and profitability of CSX operations for many years whereas the bypass option which will have minimal impact.

Draft EIS. Comment #6: Missed Goals

Missed Goal

The Tier II draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) has the following statement on the first page,

The purpose of the DC2RVA Project is to increase capacity to deliver higher speed passenger rail, expand commuter rail, and accommodate growth of freight rail service in an efficient and reliable multimodal rail corridor.

The project in its current form does not meet the specified goals. Specifically:

  • It does not provide true high speed rail service between Richmond and Washington D.C. High speed trains have a straight away speed of 180 mph or more. This project does not come close to achieving that target.
  • Today’s Amtrak trains are frequently quite empty. “Expanding commuter rail” will merely increase the number of empty trains. A true commuter service would have trains leaving every 20 minutes.
  • The growth in the freight capacity is an assumption that may not hold up. Data published by the Association of American Railroads shows that the number of carloads in the year 2017 to date is below the number for the years 2015 and 2016.
  • The term “multi-modal rail corridor” presumably means that both passenger and freight trains run on the same tracks as they do now. The DRPT goals would be better achieved by separating passenger and freight trains.

I suggest that the DRPT go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that addresses the goals that it has set for itself.

Trench Box

Trench Box used to protect workers during digging

The trench option includes a new and unusual feature — one that could pose unacceptable risk to the construction workers.

CSX needs to maintain two tracks in operation — after all this is a two to four year project and they have a business to run. In other projects, such the Alameda trench the existing rail system was kept in operation while the trench was being dug. Hence operations were not affected during the construction phase. (It would see the same were the western bypass to be selected — CSX would run trains in the normal manner on the existing tracks. They would then connect the new and the old tracks in a very short period of time.)

However, given that CSX is not able to build a third, temporary track through Ashland they have proposed that a temporary wall be placed longitudinally along the trench. There would be fill on one side of the wall, with two tracks on it. The other side would consist of the gradually growing trench.

When digging trenches for pipelines, if there is not sufficient space for sloping walls construction managers often make use of a trench box — as shown in the picture at the top of this post. In our case the box would be enormous and would have to have cross supports stretching all the way across the digging area. It is difficult to visualize how this can be done safely. And the box would have to grow down as the trench became deeper.

Note: A trench box is no good at all if, as shown in the picture, workers don’t use it.

Draft EIS. Comment #5: Ashland Town Video

Draft EIS Comments Ashland Rail

The DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transport) has released their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The public comment period ends November 7th 2017. I intend to submit a series of comments — of which this is the first.

Please take the time and trouble to submit your comments. Remember the DRPT will not respond to comments made in` any other forum, including social media sites and blogs.

Here is the address: http://dc2rvarail.com/contact-us/

As best I can tell the comment software does not allow for embedded hyperlinks. Therefore I suggest that you spell out internet addresses, as shown below. Also, the comment software does not appear to allow for file or picture attachments.

Comment #5: Council Video

Ashland Trench Option
Center St. — Before
Trench-2
Center St. — After

The Ashland Town Council has published a video that illustrates the appalling destruction that would be visited upon the town of Ashland were the trench option to be selected. It can be viewed here or here.

I fully endorse the message of the video,

Ian Sutton

Draft EIS. Comment #4: Trench Cave In

Draft EIS DRPT – Trench deficiencies

 

The DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transport) has released their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The public comment period ends November 7th 2017. I intend to submit a series of comments — of which this is the third.

Please take the time and trouble to submit your comments. Remember the DRPT will not respond to comments made in any other forum, including social media sites and blogs.

Here is the address: http://dc2rvarail.com/contact-us/

As best I can tell the comment software does not allow for embedded hyperlinks. Therefore I suggest that you spell out internet addresses, as shown below. Also, the comment software does not appear to allow for file or picture attachments.


Comment #4: Trench Cave In

One of the most serious risks to do with the digging of trenches is cave in. This is a particular concern with regard to the proposed trench through Ashland for the following reasons.

  • There is very little “elbow room” to the side of the trench walls. This will make it very difficult to ensure that the walls are properly shored up.
  • Based on what we heard at the recent Ashland Town Council meeting it is our understanding that they are considering a temporary wall running longitudinally along the trench. One side will be filled with dirt on top of which will be full size freight trains. Workers will be on the other side. Has this ever been done before? Can the DRPT ensure the safety of the workers?
  • Were there to be a cave in it would most likely take buildings and people with it, as shown in the picture below.

Cave In San Gabriel

Please demonstrate that the trench option can be carried out safely — considering both workers and people in the neighborhood.

 

Draft EIS. Comment #3: Highly Hazardous Chemicals

Draft EIS DRPT – Trench deficiencies

The DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transport) has released their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The public comment period ends November 7th 2017. I intend to submit a series of comments — of which this is the third.

Please take the time and trouble to submit your comments. Remember the DRPT will not respond to comments made in any other forum, including social media sites and blogs.

Here is the address: http://dc2rvarail.com/contact-us/

As best I can tell the comment software does not allow for embedded hyperlinks. Therefore I suggest that you spell out internet addresses, as shown below. Also, the comment software does not appear to allow for file or picture attachments.


Comment #3: Highly Hazardous Chemicals

Lynchburg derailment and fire 2014
The Lynchburg derailment

During the course of this proposed project citizens have expressed concern to do with the risks associated with highly hazardous chemicals transiting our town. Approximately 6% of the freight cars that go through Ashland carry these chemicals — and accidents do occur, as evidenced by the recent event in Lynchburg, VA (fortunately no one was injured).

The current situation is that, were there to be a release of materials from a tank car, the release would be at grade and so would disperse quite quickly depending on wind conditions. Also, since all equipment would be at grade emergency response vehicles would have good access to allow them to mitigate the event quickly and effectively.

If the trench option were to be selected the risk associated with these highly hazardous chemicals appears to increase substantially for the following reasons:

  • They are not dispersed by normal winds. Hence the concentrations of these chemicals would be much higher than at present.
  • Emergency response teams would find it difficult to access the leaking or burning cars.
  • For a smaller leak, some method of removing fumes from the trench would be needed.
  • The train crews would have a harder time escaping from the scene.

At the recent Town Council meeting at which preliminary information to do with the trench option was presented the speaker stated that the risk analyses to do with other trench projects will be provided to us. We look forward to receiving those reports.

Risk Matrix

The simple 2×2 matrix shown below divides the risks to do with highly hazardous chemicals into four groups.

2x2 matrix showing danger of highly hazardous chemicals in the trench option

A brief discussion to do with each square of the matrix is provided below.

Group 1. Flammable or explosive materials that stay in the liquid phase (oil products are an example).

If released, and if a source of ignition is present, these materials create a pool fire. Currently the liquid would flow away from the source of the spill and could be contained and the fire could be brought under control. Under the trench option the liquid would accumulate, the fire would spread to other cars, and control would be a challenge.

Group 2. Flammable or explosive materials that form a vapor cloud (LPG is an example).

Currently the vapor from this type of release would drift away from the release source and, assuming an ignition source, would explode. The explosion (a deflagration) would be followed by a fire.

Under the trench option it is possible that the vapor release could lead to what is known as a Confined Vapor Cloud Explosion. This is much more serious than the unconfined situation and has the potential for creating a detonation, as distinct from a deflagration. The consequences of such an event would be severe.

Group 3. Toxic materials that stay in the liquid phase (sulfuric acid is an example).

Currently these liquids flow away from the leak source into the ground and drains. Under the trench option they would presumably stay in the trench, depending on the drainage system that is installed. Removing the liquids would be challenging.

Group 4. Toxic materials that vaporize (chlorine is an example).

Currently, depending on the density of the vapor with respect to air, a release could create a cloud affecting many homes and business locations. The trench option may actually pose less of a hazard because the vapors would be partially confined, although some means of removing the vapors to a safe location would be required.

Chemicals that Solidify

Sulfur Pile
A Sulfur Pile

There is actually another category of chemical — those that are liquid in the cars but that solidify when they are released and cooled. Easily the most important of those to us is liquid sulfur, which is a by-product of oil refining and is used to make sulfuric acid. Many sulfur cars go through our town every day. It is possible that the sulfur in the cars is in solid form and that it is heated and melted when it reaches its destination. However, if liquid sulfur is released it will set up right away because it has a melting point of 115C/239F.

Solid sulfur is not particularly hazardous, but removing it from the trench could be a chore.

Conclusions

This preliminary review suggests that trench option would materially increase the risks associated with highly hazardous chemicals because the materials would not disperse as they do now, and because the emergency responders would have difficulty in controlling the situation.. However, much additional analysis is required.

As noted in the Introduction to this post, we have been informed that the pertinent reports to do with other trench options will be provided to us. We look forward to receiving those reports.

Draft EIS. Comment #2: Structural Integrity

Draft EIS DRPT – Trench deficiencies

The DRPT (Department of Rail and Public Transport) has released their Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The public comment period ends November 7th 2017. I intend to submit a series of comments — of which this is the second.

Please take the time and trouble to submit your comments. Remember the DRPT will not respond to comments made in any other forum, including social media sites and blogs.

Here is the address: http://dc2rvarail.com/contact-us/

As best I can tell the comment software does not allow for embedded hyperlinks. Therefore I suggest that you spell out internet addresses, as shown below. Also, the comment software does not appear to allow for file or picture attachments.


Comment #2: Structural Integrity

Approximately a year and a half ago — long before the idea of a trench was considered — the DRPT conducted a survey to do with the structural integrity of the buildings on Center St. and Railroad Ave.

Some of the older homes on the tracks already experience vibration as the trains go by. If the trench option were to be selected the vibration would be much worse, particularly during the construction phase. It may not be hyperbole to say that some of the homes would be damaged to the point where they need to be condemned. Even the newer homes are built only to normal codes — they are not seismically qualified.

Please submit updated reports that show just what the impact that the trench project would have on the structural integrity of the buildings adjacent to the tracks.

Thank you.